Learning and unlearning terrorism: The transition from civilian life into paramilitarism and back again during the conflict and peace process in Northern Ireland


This project brings together two qualitative data sets compiled by Professor Ferguson and Professor McAuley over a period spanning more than 20 years and comprising of approximately 100 anonymised transcriptions of interviews conducted with Northern Irish paramilitaries, ex-prisoners and former Loyalist and Republican combatants for a comprehensive high-level re-analysis.

The project focuses on three key aspects: (a) how and why the individuals initiated contact with armed groups and to chart their journey into paramilitary groups and their engagement in politically motivated violence; (b) exploring their life within the organisation, focusing on (i) how they sustain their terrorist activities and develop as operatives within the organization; (ii) deal with the threats they face to their freedom and safety from the security forces and rival paramilitary groups; (iii) the psychological and physical pressures of being a terrorist and the impact this has on their physical and psychological well-being, interpersonal relationships and their personality and (c) explore how former combatants disengaged from violent extremism and their transition back into their community, focusing on the drivers and barriers to their disengagement, de-radicalisation and reintegration.

Research questions

  • How do individuals initiate contact with paramilitary groups and begin to ‘radicalise’ or learn the ideology and techniques necessary to engage in politically motivated violence?
  • Once engaged in politically motivated violence and terrorism, how do they sustain this activity and develop to become key ‘players’ in the conflict over the lifespan of their paramilitary careers?
  • How do former combatants disengage from using political violence to make the transition back into their communities and develop in non-violent careers post-conflict?


The Violent Extremist Lifecycle: Lessons from Northern Ireland

This guide draws on a reanalysis of interview data from the 1980s and 90s that explored the lifecycle phases among loyalist and republican paramilitaries...Read More »

Staying Engaged in Terrorism: Narrative Accounts of Sustaining Participation in Violent Extremism

Research exploring radicalization pathways and how and why people become involved in terrorism has expanded since the 9/11 attacks. Likewise, over the last decade...Read More »

Radicalization or Reaction: Understanding Engagement in Violent Extremism in Northern Ireland

Over the last decade various theoretical models of radicalization or pathways into engagement in violent extremism have been developed. However, there is a dearth...Read More »

Understanding Engagement in Violent Extremism in Northern Ireland

Professor Neil Ferguson draws on his work in Northern Ireland with former Loyalist and Republican combatants, to look at factors which occur regularly in...Read More »

Principal investigator

Professor Neil Ferguson


Liverpool Hope University, UK
Huddersfield University, UK