We Did It to the Irish First: Heavy-Handed Anti-Terror Tactics Have a History of Making Things Worse, Writes Paul Donovan

Article excerpt

A couple in bed at 5am are awakened by a terrible banging downstairs. The next moment they are surrounded by armed police, uniformed and plain-clothed, who have knocked down the front door with a sledgehammer. They are ordered to get up and dress. The man is arrested, taken to Paddington Green police station, held for five days, questioned intensively and then released without any action being taken against him.

It is a chain of events that will be increasingly familiar to Muslims across Britain, but this case actually involved an Irish couple dealt with under the Prevention of Terrorism Act about 20 years ago.

The July bomb attacks on London and the shooting dead of the Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes have heightened the feeling among Muslims that they are collectively suspect. Not since the conflict in Northern Ireland was at its height has one ethnic minority felt targeted in such a way.

When the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974 was passed, immediately after the Birmingham and Guildford pub bombings that same year, the Irish in Britain felt its full force. They were routinely stopped and interrogated at ports and airports; their houses were raided; they were held for anything from a few hours to seven days, then usually let go without charge. The statistics are striking: 7,052 people were detained under the act between 1974 and 1991; of those, 86 per cent were released without charge. So far as the Irish community was concerned, the message was clear: merely to be Irish was to arouse suspicion.

The use of anti-terror laws and an underlying racism towards the Irish resulted in the miscarriages of justice involving the Birmingham Six, Judith Ward, the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven--running sores of resentment for Irish people in the 1970s and 1980s. Attacks on Irish people were often not reported in the media or followed up by the police.

The community shrank in on itself. In Liverpool many Irish people went absent from work the day after a bombing atrocity, for fear of reprisals. Irish clubs developed as a network of havens where people could mix with their own. The Irish Post newspaper was established in 1970 to publish news of the community not available in national or local media.

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On the political front the Irish in Britain, for many years strongly present in the Labour Party, retreated from the scene. It was only with the Northern Ireland peace process that they began to assert themselves politically and culturally.

In short, the Prevention of Terrorism Act caused injustice, alienated law-abiding citizens and created resentment among people whose co-operation could have been invaluable for government and police. …