Irish teenagers growing up in British cities in the 1970s and 1980s knew what it was like to be part of a suspect community. We knew that anti-terrorism legislation passed in the aftermath of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings was aimed at us, the Irish.
We knew the authorities viewed having an Irish name as corroborating evidence, that a senior British police official had asked people to report having Irish neighbors so the police could “check them out.” We knew people who were detained under the anti-terror laws on the strength of being Irish and living in Britain.
We lived in fear of being picked up for questioning, of someone we knew being bullied by the police into blurting a name, any name, our name (a friend of mine, arrested under the laws in 1985, was so desperate to stop the questioning that he gave the police names of his uncles in Ireland involved in the IRA in the early 1920s).
We knew the anti-terror laws were officially meant to apply to everyone equally, but that really they were meant for us (and we were right – a study in 1996 of the 6,500 arrests made under the Prevention of Terrorism Act found that 97% of those arrested were Irish).
Security officials and politicians scapegoated the wider Irish community for the IRA's violence. We knew that innocent people, like the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, had been wrongly convicted of terrorist crimes. The Maguire family in London – including the children -- was sent to prison for terrorist offenses that had not even taken place. It could have been any of us, for being Irish in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Irish culture was disrupted in a subtle and obvious way – St. Patrick's Day parades were scrapped, “rebel” songs banned from Irish clubs, a Gaelic football match I was playing in abandoned when one of the players was arrested -- midgame -- by the police.
A young London boy I knew was so scared his parents would be arrested he buried their Wolfe Tones records in the garden, in case they were used as evidence of IRA sympathies.
I campaigned for the release of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, and they were eventually pardoned after wrongly spending more than 15 years in prison. I wrote books and articles about how the British authorities had got it wrong in alienating the Irish in Britain during that time, how they'd misjudged engaging with the minority community they most needed to reach out to. I thought the dark days of collective scapegoating were long gone.
But last month I arrived in the U.S. to start work for human rights NGO Human Rights First, and saw that New York Congressman Peter King – the same Peter King who stood up for Irish people during the Troubles – is set to hold hearings stigmatizing another community.
Years ago, before it was fashionable, King exposed the British shoot to kill policy and visited Ireland when other politicians wouldn't. From his position on the House Committee on International Relations, he repeatedly raised the cases of murdered Irish human rights lawyers Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, and pushed legislation to cut FBI training of the RUC. Vilification of him by the British press only added to his credibility.
But he's about to make Muslim families in the U.S. know what it felt like to be Irish in Britain 30 years ago, what it's like to feel collective suspicion. Innocent Muslim families will hope that "terrorist suspects" in police custody don't have the same family name as them, and pray that no one under interrogation says they are friends.
Irish people in London were routinely shunned by neighbors and work colleagues after an IRA bombing, wrongly presuming we either supported the violence, or were hiding information about the bombers from the police.
Public suspicion of us encouraged the police to assume we were guilty on some level, and we teenagers hated them for it. We gave them false, English-sounding names when they stopped us in the street, and avoided helping them. None of us would have dreamed of becoming a police officer.
The King hearings would fuel similar animosity, signaling to young Muslims that they don't belong, that the assumption of innocence doesn't really apply to them, and that it's their turn to become the usual suspects.
(Brian Dooley is the author of "Choosing the Green? Second Generation Irish and the Cause of Ireland," and "Black and Green, the Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America.”)
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