Suspect Communities

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings. It’s doubtless an overstatement to say the effects were felt by everyone in the city, but many people felt some connection to the events of that evening.

They were out in town that night.

They were a friend of a friend.

They were held up in traffic when the roads were closed.

They noticed a man leaving the cinema before the film started.

The usual multiplicity of connections and coincidences that collective traumas reveal.

My family were affected in two small ways. The first was that my eldest sister was one of the many people who felt they’d had a lucky escape. She customarily met her best friend in the Tavern in the Town pub every Thursday, but didn’t that night due to illness. The second ocurred the following night when the phone rang and someone told my dad that there was a bomb on our doorstep.

My parents had lived in Birmingham for over thirty years in 1974, but they had Irish names and Irish accents. In common with many of the Irish population of the city, the bombings impacted upon them both as potential victims and suspects.

The parallels between what the Irish in Birmingham experienced in the mid-70s and what the Muslim community in Birmingham has experienced since various high profile ‘terror trials’ over the last ten years are marked. Aside from the similarities in tone and language in local and national press coverage, I’m struck particularly by hearing the very same neighbourhoods cropping up again and again: Sparkhill, Alum Rock, Balsall Heath – these are the places where immigrants settle – once Irish, then Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Polish, Somali…

I wanted to explore these parallels and the experience of being part of a suspect community. I wrote a short story for Writers at Liberty called Project Champion – inspired by the real life police operation of the same name. It features a schoolboy named Mo who misunderstands why security cameras have appeared in his neighbourhood. Within a few months of writing it, the alleged ‘Trojan Horse’ plot in Birmingham schools dominated TV and newspaper headlines. In the light of that hysteria, I think it’s safe to say now that there isn’t a Muslim boy or girl in the city who could ever share Mo’s naivety.