A forgotten ‘suspect community’? Remembering the experiences of the Irish in Britain in the 1970s-80s

Two events this week have brought back the conflict in Northern Ireland to the attention of many, nearly twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement – the death of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and the terrorist attack at Westminster.

Firstly McGuinness’ death demonstrated that while many had accepted the outcomes of the peace process and shift by McGuinness and Sinn Fein away from the armalite to the ballot box, just as many still saw McGuinness as one of the public faces of Sinn Fein at a time when the Provisional IRA still conducted a campaign of armed struggle. The UK tabloids typified this approach, with the Daily Mail putting pictures of the bombings at Guildford and Enniskillen on its front page, while The Sun blazoned the headline, ‘UNFORGIVEN’. From the varied response to McGuinness’ death, it seems that the memory of ‘The Troubles’, especially the actions of the IRA, has not faded from British consciousness.

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A contrast between the UK and Irish tabloids

Secondly in the wake of the attack at Westminster on Wednesday, a meme has been circulated online that suggests that even though the IRA planted bombs in London, the Irish population at large in Britain were not persecuted and that the British public ‘knew’ that any IRA bombings were the result of a few individuals. The intent of this meme is to argue that the British should not blame the Muslim community for the attack at Westminster and realise that it was the actions of a small minority. However this ignores the fact that the Irish community in Britain faced heavy discrimination in the 1970s and 1980s and were heavily policed in the wake of Republican attacks, such as the Guildford and Birmingham bombings in 1974.

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The offending tweet.

As I have written elsewhere, after these two attacks in late 1974, the Labour government quickly introduced the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974. The Prevention of Terrorism Act gave the police and the security services wide-ranging powers of arrest and detention to counter terrorism extending from Northern Ireland, including arrest without warrant, detention without charge for up to five days and exclusion of people travelling from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. These powers were further extended in 1976, 1984 and 1989. The authorities used these Acts to intimidate the Irish community in Britain and their over-zealousness resulted in a number of wrongful convictions, such as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. Alongside these wrongful convictions, many would have suffered wrongful arrest or detention, or police harassment that have gone unrecorded. It could be argued that the Irish population in Britain was considered a ‘suspect community’.

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The Birmingham Six at the time of their arrest.

The notion of the ‘suspect community’ was first developed by Paddy Hillyard in the early 1990s to describe the suspicion placed upon the entire Irish community in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s by the Prevention of Terrorism Acts. Hillyard argued that the Prevention of Terrorism legislation had, in practice, placed the Irish communists under suspicion ‘because they are Irish’, rather than a specific offence – because ‘they belong[ed] to a suspect community’. This form of ‘institutionalised racism’ was based on pressuring the Irish community into providing information on others within the same community and placing everyone within the minority community under suspicion. Hillyard explained:

To begin with, it appears to be commonplace for the police to try and pick up anyone who is related to, is friends with or has been connected with – however tenuously – someone who is suspected of a serious crime or has been charged with one. After this group has been arrested and interrogated, the police then focus on people related to, or connected with them, and the process continues. This pyramid method of police investigation draws into the net a wide range of people and the main thread which links them all is the fact that most are Irish or are married to someone who is Irish.

The concept of the ‘suspect community’ is not limited to describing the methods of policing enforced upon a certain community grouping, but also encompasses how formal public suspicion by the authorities could be transferred to a public suspicion. Hillyard claimed that the public ‘played an important role in the construction of suspicion’ and in the case of the Irish community, this had resulted in ‘some [non-Irish] members of the public… report[ing] an Irish person’s presence to the police.’ This suspicion was reinforced by the press which promoted ‘the view that all Irish people are suspect.’

In the twenty-first century, scholars have used the concept of the ‘suspect community’ to describe how Britain’s Muslim communities have been perceived in the era of the ‘war on terror’. It has been employed to show the continuities in British national security policy and how this affects perceptions of minority communities by broader civil society. Christina Pantazis and Simon Pemberton define the ‘suspect community’ as:

a sub-group of the population that is singled out for state attention as being ‘problematic’. Specifically in terms of policing, individuals may be targeted, not necessarily as a result of suspected wrong doing, but simply because of their presumed membership to that sub-group.

Even though there are differences in how the Irish were treated in the past and how Muslims are treated in the present with regards to counter-terrorism and national security, but there are also continuities. Making anti-racist statements against the racist backlash faced by Britain’s Muslim communities does not need to erase the discriminatory treatment faced by Britain’s Irish communities a few decades ago. The reaction to the death of leading Republican Martin McGuinness, who renounced the armed struggle and embraced parliamentary politics, shows that the memory of Irish Republican violence has not gone away, but at the same time, we need to remember how the majority of Irish people in Britain were treated (and how they felt) in the wake of this violence.

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2 comments

  1. I don’t understand why “Making anti-racist statements against the racist backlash faced by Britain’s Muslim communities does not need to erase the discriminatory treatment faced by Britain’s Irish communities a few decades ago.”

    Surely “Making anti-racist statements against the racist backlash faced by Britain’s Muslim communities” should only serve to reinforce the error of “the discriminatory treatment faced by Britain’s Irish communities a few decades ago.”

    Far from erase it. A travesty is a travesty. The only variables are context and scale.

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