On Thursday 21 November 1974, bombs exploded within minutes of each other in two Birmingham city centre pubs. Bodies and body parts were blasted across the streets. 21 people, mostly young people, died and 182 were injured. It was a truly terrible attack on innocent civilians. It led to a deep anger across the country and people of Irish origin in Birmingham felt frightened and got at. This atmosphere of hostility to the sizeable Irish community in Birmingham lasted many years. The annual St Patrick’s Day parade was cancelled in 1975 and not reinstated for a further 30 years. This attack was part of an IRA bombing campaign that included the M62 coach bombing of February 1974 and an attack in the Kings Arms pub in Woolwich on 7 November.
Parliament responded by rushing a Prevention of Terrorism Act onto the statute book on 29 November 1974, without substantive debate. The then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins said when introducing the Bill “these powers are draconian. In combination they are unprecedented in peace time.”
The Act had three parts. Part 1 proscribed the IRA in Britain. Part II gave the Home Secretary the power to [During the Troubles] there was strong disgruntlement and alienation in the Irish community in Britain. Those who campaigned to highlight injustices in Northern Ireland or wrongful convictions in Britain, felt besieged and were constantly attacked in the press as IRA supporters.exclude from Britain, people he considered to be involved in terrorism. Part III allowed the police to hold people for questioning for 48 hours and for a further 5 days with the permission of the Home Secretary. The police were also given the power to issue their own warrants for the search of premises.
In the first four months of the Act’s operation, three people were charged under Part I, but two later had their charges dropped; 45 exclusion orders were issued; 489 people were detained at police stations but only 16 later charged with criminal offences.
Irish people felt vulnerable.
In 1975, six men were sentenced to life imprisonment for the Birmingham pub bombings. In 1991 their convictions were overturned by the Court of Appeal. There were other notorious miscarriages of justice. In October 1975, three men and one woman were convicted for planting a bomb in a pub in Guildford where off-duty soldiers used to drink. Five people were killed and 65 injured. In 1989 the four, who had always protested their innocence were released after evidence became available that showed that the police had fabricated their evidence and had lied. In addition, 7 members of the Maguire family were convicted for running a bomb making factory. The father, Giuseppe Conlan died in prison. The rest of the family were released in 1991 after the Court of Appeal quashed their sentences. On 9 February 2005, Tony Blair issued an apology to the families of the 11 people imprisoned for the bombings in Guildford and Woolwich, which included the Maguire family.
Throughout those years, there was strong disgruntlement and alienation in the Irish community in Britain. Those who campaigned to highlight injustices in Northern Ireland or wrongful convictions in Britain, felt besieged and were constantly attacked in the press as IRA supporters. Young men who travelled between Britain and Ireland were often detained under the PTA. This atmosphere, together with internment and then non-jury trials in Northern Ireland led to an alienation that increased support for the IRA. The widespread slogan used by campaigners was “If you are Irish, you must be guilty.”
It is, I suggest, worth reflecting on these events and their links to political developments in Northern Ireland because there are so many parallels with the current treatment and feelings of the Muslim community. The erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law and the sense in the Muslim community in Britain that they are under attack, are very similar. Clearly the scale of the wrong being done in the Middle East and the erosion of civil liberties are much graver, but having lived through these events and seen the effects on first the Irish and now the Muslim community in Birmingham, I think there are important lessons to be learned from the comparison. In a strange way the comparison leaves me with some sense of optimism which I will come on to explain.
In the case of Tony Blair, it is uncanny that one of the things he is most proud of is the progress of peace in Northern Ireland, yet his policies in relation to Al Qaeda style terrorism exacerbates the problem and fails to incorporate any of the lessons the British establishment eventually learned in relation to Irish terrorism.
In order to draw out the comparison, it is necessary to expand a little on the history of Ireland’s relationship with Britain and the origins of the commitment to the use of physical force in Ireland’s resistance to British occupation. The record of Britain’s cruelty and oppression in its first colony dates from the twelfth century. There was endless persecution, land confiscation, uprisings, transportation and execution. After an uprising in the 1920s, self rule was ceded to 26 of the 32 countries. But the industrialised north was partitioned from the rest. It remained under UK tutelage but was given self rule. The record of the continuing discrimination against Catholics in housing, employment and all aspects of life was grave and the Westminster Parliament did nothing to put this right. Then in 1968, inspired by the Civil Rights movement against racial discrimination in the USA, the Northern Irish Catholics organised peaceful protests and marches. But the marches were banned and/or attacked and assaulted by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The brutality was relayed by TV pictures worldwide. Continuous rioting led to direct rule being imposed from Westminster and to British troops being sent in to put down the riots. The IRA which had virtually ceased to function in Ireland then split into a left leaning Official IRA and a more militant Provisional IRA, committed to protecting the Catholic community. Following this the Provisional IRA embarked on a thirty year campaign against the British presence in Northern Ireland. 3000 people died in the course of this campaign.
30 years later, despite the fact that Northern Ireland was physically close to Britain and active IRA members numbered only a few hundred, the might of the British armed forces and the powers of the UK state were unable to defeat the IRA campaign. Following a spectacular hunger strike of IRA prisoners in the mid-1980s, steps towards peace began. In 1985 under Mrs Thatcher, the Anglo Irish Agreement was signed which, toOne of the things [Blair] is most proud of is the progress of peace in Northern Ireland, yet his policies in relation to Al Qaeda style terrorism exacerbates the problem and fails to incorporate any of the lessons the British establishment eventually learned in relation to Irish terrorism. the annoyance of the Unionists, gave the Irish government a say in Northern Irish affairs. In 1988, John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and a civil rights activist since 1968, opened talks with Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein. He was vilified for this but his intention was to persuade Sinn Fein that violence should end because there was a political route to justice. In March 1989, Gerry Adams made a speech saying that he sought “a non-armed political movement to work for self determination”. In November 1989 Peter Brooke, the Tory Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made a speech saying that the IRA could not be defeated militarily. He also said he would not rule out talks with Sinn Fein if there was an end to violence. In 1991 talks between all the parties began. :In 1993 after talks with the Irish government, John Major declared that the people of Northern Ireland should be free to decide their own future and that representatives of all groups should meet to discuss a solution. Sinn Fein was offered a seat if it renounced violence. The IRA declared a cease fire in 1994.
The talks continued under the Blair government and in April 1998 with the help of the special qualities brought to the task by the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, the Good Friday Agreement was signed. A referendum of the people of Ireland North and South overwhelmingly upheld the Agreement and it led to an end to violence and then IRA agreement to a permanent cessation of violence. The squabble in Northern Ireland over sharing power continues, but after 800 years, the gun has been almost completely removed from Irish politics.
Clearly the conflict in the Middle East is much larger than that in Northern Ireland; the world’s largest power is embroiled and will not wish to admit defeat; NATO has committed itself to defeating the uprising in Afghanistan; and the Middle East has most of the world’s oil resources at a time when the prospect of global shortages looms large. But nevertheless just as Peter Brooke had the courage to say that the IRA could not be defeated militarily, neither can the insurgency in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. I fear that the conflict, the mounting insurgency and spreading loss of civil liberties could continue for decades. But in the end there will have to be talks and violence will only be brought to an end by establishing a just settlement. This will mean withdrawal of the occupation from Iraq and Afghanistan, the establishment of a Palestinian state, the withdrawal of all WMD from the region and the election of democratic governments throughout the Middle East.
The question is how long will this take. We could see decades more of killing and dying and erosion of the rule of law. But in the end, the peacemakers will win. Our job is to demand a just peace and support those who seek to find it. We must do all we can to persuade the angry young men that their cause is just, our government is wrong, but that violence against civilians by state or non state actors is always wrong. The lesson of Northern Ireland is that the civil rights activists and the peacemakers win in the end.