This article questions the fashionable view that Northern Ireland is a counterinsurgency lesson to be learned for the global ‘war on terror’. It suggests that Britain’s involvement in the Northern Ireland conflict – one of the longest conflicts within Europe in which a government has been at war with a clandestine organization – can be regarded as a meaningful metaphoric utterance in efforts to analyse the practical failures and threat discourses of the global ‘war on terror’. Northern Ireland is more than a specific case study: it acts as an appealing metaphor in attempts to understand the logics and pitfalls of the ‘war against terrorism’, where the increasing primacy granted to terror control – present and future – means that Western governments are increasingly more willing to infringe otherwise inviolable rights in the pursuit of a supposed greater good – security. The article explores the political economy of unease, suspicion, exception and radicalization in the ‘war against terrorism’. It concludes that Northern Ireland is not a model that can be exported around the globe but an invitation to analyse contingency, daily operations of security, and their effects on social practices and routines. Northern Ireland also represents a remarkable inducement to assess how exception, suspicion and radicalization are correlated, as well as to recognize that efforts to contain the unpredictability of the future are self-defeating.