Disengaging from Terrorism: A Northern Irish Experience


  • Neil Ferguson Liverpool Hope University


disengagement, deradicalization, terrorism, Northern Ireland, extremism, radicalization


This article explores the disengagement and deradicalization experiences of Northern Irish loyalist paramilitaries from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Red Hand Commando (RHC). Interpretative phenomenological analysis was employed to develop an understanding of how the former combatants interpreted and made sense of their disengagement from violence extremism in Northern Ireland after the Belfast Agreement. The analysis of the interviews focusses around push and pull factors which either promote or hinder their ability to move away from violent extremism. The results find a resonance with recent research exploring disengagement and deradicalization processes with terror groupings across the globe and the ideological spectrum. The findings are discussed in relation to a number of topics, including the role of prison, barriers to disengagement, continued commitment and radicalization after desistence from violent extremism, the role of life changes in promoting disengagement and how organizational pressures contain and influence individual disengagement.

Author Biography

Neil Ferguson, Liverpool Hope University

Professor of Political Psychology, Liverpool Hope University


Alonso, R. (2011). Why Do Terrorists Stop? Analyzing Why ETA Members Abandon or Continue with Terrorism. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 34, 696-716.

Altier, M. B., Thoroughgood, C. N., & Horgan, J. G. (2014). Turning away from terrorism: Lessons from psychology, sociology and criminology. Journal of Peace Research, 51, 647-661.

Ashour, O. (2011). Post-Jihadism: Libya and the global transformations of armed Islamic movements. Terrorism and Political Violence, 23, 377-397.

Barelle, K. (2015). Pro-integration: Disengagement from and life after extremism. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 7, 129-142.

Bertram, L. (2015). How could a terrorist be de-radicalized. Journal of Deradicalization, 15/16, 120-149.

Bjorgo, T. (2009). Processes of disengagement from violent groups of the extreme right. In T. Bjorgo and J. Horgan (Eds.) Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement (pp. 30-48). London: Routledge.

Bjorgo, T. (2011). Dreams and disillusionment: Engagement in and disengagement from militant extremist groups. Crime, Law and Social Change, 55, 277-285.

Bjorgo, T. (2013). Strategies for Preventing Terrorism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Blee, K. M. (2002). Inside organized racism: Women in the hate movement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bond, M. (2014). Why Westerners are driven to join the jihadist fight http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329861.700-why-westerners-are-driven-to-join-the-jihadist-fight.html#.VQLIAvysX_E

Bruce, S. (1992). The Red Hand: Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Burgess, M., & Ferguson, N., & Hollywood, I. (2007). Rebels’ Perspectives of the Legacy of Past Violence and of the Current Peace in Post-Agreement Northern Ireland: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Political Psychology, 28, 69-88.

Clubb, G. (2016). The Role of Former Combatants in Preventing Youth Involvement in Terrorism in Northern Ireland: A Framework for Assessing Former Islamic State Combatants. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 1-20. doi:10.1080/1057610X.2016.1144917

Dalgaard-Nielsen, A. (2013). Promoting exit from violent extremism: Themes and approaches. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 36, 99-115.

Della Porta, D., & La Free, G. (2012). Guest Editorial: Processes of radicalization and de-radicalization. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 6, 4-10.

Dwyer, C. D. (2013). “They might as well be walking around the inside of a biscuit tin”: Barriers to employment and reintegration for ‘politically motivated’ former prisoners in Northern Ireland. European Journal of Probation, 5, 3-24.

Edwards, A. (2009). Abandoning armed resistance? The Ulster Volunteer Force as a case study of strategic terrorism in Northern Ireland. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 32, 146-166.

Feddes, A. R. (2015). Socio-psychological factors involved in measures of disengagement and deradicalization and evaluation challenges in Western Europe. http://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/Feddes.pdf

Ferguson, N. (2010). Disarmament, Demobilization, Reinsertion and Reintegration: The Northern Ireland Experience. In N. Ferguson, (Ed.), Post Conflict Reconstruction (pp. 151-164). Newcastle: CSP.

Ferguson, N. (2011). Disengaging from terrorism. In A. Silke. The Psychology of Counter-Terrorism (pp. 111-122). London: Routledge.

Ferguson, N. (2014). Northern Irish Ex-Prisoners: The impact of Imprisonment on Prisoners and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. In A. Silke (Ed.), Prisons, Terrorism and Extremism: Critical Issues in

Management, Radicalisation and Reform (p. 270-282). London: Routledge.

Ferguson, N. (2016). Researching Proscribed Armed Groups: Interviewing Loyalist and Republican Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. In A. J. Williams, K. N. Jenkings, M. F. Rech & R. Woodward (eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Military Research Methods (p. 153- 166). Abingdon, Oxon: Ashgate.

Ferguson, N. & Cairns, E. (2002). The Impact of Political Conflict on Moral Maturity: A Cross-national Perspective. Journal of Adolescence, 24, 441-451.

Ferguson, N., & J. W. McAuley (in press a). Ulster Loyalist Accounts of Armed Mobilization, Demobilization and Decommissioning. In L. Bosi and G.De Fazio (Eds.), The Troubles: Northern Ireland and Social Movements Theories. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press.

Ferguson, N., & McAuley, J. W. (in press b). An interview with Billy Hutchinson. Terrorism and Political Violence.

Ferguson, N., & Binks, E. (2015). Understanding Radicalization and Engagement in Terrorism through Religious Conversion Motifs. Journal of Strategic Security, 8, 16-26.

Ferguson, N., Burgess, M., & Hollywood, I. (2010). Who are the Victims? Victimhood Experiences in Post Agreement Northern Ireland. Political Psychology, 31, 857-886.

Ferguson, N., Burgess, M., & Hollywood, I. (2015). Leaving violence behind: Disengaging from politically motivated violence in Northern Ireland. Political Psychology, 36, 199-214.

Ganor, B., & Falk, O. (2013). De-Radicalization in Israel's Prison System. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 36, 116-131.

Garfinkel, R. (2007). Personal transformations: Moving from violence to peace. United States Institute of Peace Special Report, 186, April.

Harmon. C., C. (2010). How terrorist groups end: Studies of the Twentieth Century. Strategic Studies Quarterly, Fall, 43-84.

Horgan, J. (2009). Walking Away from Terrorism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements. London: Routledge.

Horgan, J. (2014a). The psychology of terrorism. London: Routledge.

Horgan, J. (2014b). What makes a terrorism stop being a terrorist? Journal of Deradicalization, 1, 1-4.

Horgan, J., & Braddock, K. (2010). Rehabilitating the terrorists? Challenges in assessing the effectiveness of de-radicalization programs. Terrorism and Political Violence, 22, 267-291.

Huddy, L. (2001). From social to political identity: A critical examination of social identity theory. Political Psychology, 22, 1, 127-165.

Humphreys, M., & Weinstein, J. M. (2007). Demobilization and Reintegration. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 51, 4, 531-567.

Jameison, R., Shirlow, P., & Grounds, A. (2010). Ageing and Social Exclusion among Former Politically Motivated Prisoners in Northern Ireland and the Border Region of Ireland. Belfast: Changing Age Partnership.

Kabia, J. M. (2010). Peacebuilding in Liberia and Sierra Leone: A comparative perspective. In N. Ferguson, (Ed.), Post Conflict Reconstruction (pp. 133-150). Newcastle: CSP.

Kruglanski, A. W., Gelfand, M. J., Belanger, J. J., Sheveland, A., Hetiarachchi, M., & Gunaratna, R. (2014). The psychology of radicalization and deradicalization: How significance quest impacts violent extremism. Advances in Political Psychology, 1, 69-93.

Koehler, D. (2015). Radical Groups’ Social Pressure Towards Defectors: The Case of Right-Wing Extremist Groups. Perspectives on Terrorism, 9, 36-50.

Laub, J. & Sampson, R. (2001). Understanding Desistance from Crime. Crime and Justice: An Annual Review of Research, 28, 1-70.

Mac Ginty, R., Muldoon, O. Ferguson, N. (2007). No war, no peace: Northern Ireland after the Agreement. Political Psychology, 28, 1, 1-12.

MacNair, R. M. (2002). Perpetration-induced traumatic stress: The psychological consequences of killing. Westport, CT: Praeger.

McAuley, J., W., Tonge, J., & Shirlow, P. (2010). Conflict, transformation, and former loyalist paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland. Terrorism and Political Violence, 22, 22-40.

Moghaddam, F. (2005) The staircase to terrorism: A psychological exploration. American Psychologist, 60, 161-169.

Norricks, D. M. E. (2009). Disengagement and deradicalization: Processes and programs. In P. K. Davis & K. Cragin (Eds.), Social science for counterterrorism: Putting the pieces together (pp. 299-321).Santa Monica, CA: RAND

O’Connell, E., & Benard, C. (2005). The myth of martyrdom: Young people and the insurgency in Iraq. In C. Benard (Ed.), A future for the young: Options for helping Middle Eastern youth escape the trap of radicalization. (pages 107-129). Santa Monica, CA: RAND.


Porges, M (2014). Saudi Arabia's "soft" approach to terrorist prisoners: A model for others. In. In A. Silke (Ed.), Prisons, Terrorism and Extremism: Critical Issues in Management, Radicalisation and Reform (p. 169-182). London: Routledge.

Rashwan, D. (2009). The renunciation of violence by Egyptian jihadi organizations. In T. Bjorgo and J. Horgan (Eds.) Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement (pp. 113-132). London: Routledge.

Rambo, L.R. (1993) Understanding Religions Conversion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Recruiting People with Conflict-Related Convictions, Employers Guidance. (2007) OFM/DFM: Belfast.

Reinares, F. (2011). Exit from terrorism: A qualitative empirical study on disengagement and deradicalization among members of ETA. Terrorism and Political Violence, 23, 780-803.

Sageman, M. (2004). Understanding terror networks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Schmid, A. P. (2013). Radicalization and de-radicalization, counter-radicalization: A conceptual discussion and literature review. The Hague: International Centre for Counter-Terrorism.

Schuurman, B., & Bakker, E. (2016). Reintegrating jihadist extremists: Evaluating a Dutch initiative, 2013-2014. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 8, 66-85.

Sedgwick, M. (2010). The concept of radicalization as a source of confusion. Terrorism and political Violence, 22, 479-494.

Shirlow, P. & McEvoy, K. (2008). Beyond the wire. Former prisoners and conflict transformation in Northern Ireland. London: Pluto.

Silke, A. (1998) Cheshire-cat logic: The recurring theme of terrorist abnormality in psychological research. Psychology, Crime and Law, 4, 1, 51-69.

Silke, A. (2001). The Devil you know: Continuing problems with research on terrorism. Terrorism and Political Violence 13, 1-14.

Silke, A. (2011). Terrorists and extremists in prison: Psychological issues in management and reform. In A. Silke (Ed.), The Psychology of Counter-Terrorism (p. 123-134). London: Routledge.

Smith, J. A. (1995). Semi-structured interviewing and qualitative analysis. In J. A. Smith, R. Harré, & L. Van Langenhove (Eds.), Rethinking methods in psychology (pp. 9-26). London: Sage.

Smyth, M., & Hamilton, J. (2004). The human cost of the Troubles. In O’Hargie and D. Dickson (Eds.), Researching the Troubles: Social Science Perspectives on the Northern Ireland Conflict (pp. 15-36). London: Mainstream Publishing.

Statement by Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) on Decommissioning (2009, June). http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/othelem/organ/uvf/uvf270609.htm

Stern, J. (2010). Mind over martyr: How to deradicalize Islamist extremists. Foreign Affairs, 89, 95-108.

Sukabdi, Z. A. (2015). Terrorism in Indonesia: A review on rehabilitation and deradicalization. Journal of Terrorism Research, 6, 36-56.

The Agreement: The Agreement Reached in the Multi-party Negotiations. (1998). HMSO: Belfast

UVF Statement. (2007, May).


Van Stekelenburg, J., Klandermans, B. (2007). Individuals in movements: A social psychology of contention. In C. M. Roggeband and B. Klandermans (Eds.), The Handbook of Social Movements across Disciplines (p. 157-204). New York: Springer.

Vidino, L. (2011). The Buccinasco Pentiti: A unique case study of radicalization. Terrorism and Political Violence, 23, 398-418.

Visher, C.A. & Travis, J. (2003). Transitions from prison to community: understanding individual pathways. Annual Review of Sociology 29, 89-113.