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.MORE