Belfast Telegraph

Birmingham bombings arrests showed me how risky it had become just to have an Irish accent

The Birmingham Six were wrongly convicted of bombing two pubs in the city 40 years ago today. Malachi O'Doherty, who worked in England in 1975, recalls a time of suspicion and mistrust

On the day before the Birmingham pub bombs I was arrested in Ambleside in the Lake District. I was held for about four hours and questioned about my "political intentions" by a constable who had never confronted a terrorist suspect before and didn't know how not to make himself look a bit foolish.

I suspect that, if I had been arrested on the following day, more assertive interrogators would have been sent for.

I had gone to look for work harvesting Christmas trees with a few friends and we had got lost. We stopped to ask directions at the home of an Army major, who has a name that turns up occasionally on the news in another context.

He was polite and gave me directions towards a dangerous, icy road that was too steep to negotiate and then called the police, who were ready to meet us as our car slid sideways to the bottom.

I was a suspect because I had a Northern Irish accent. Or maybe it was something else.

I didn't feel too miffed about this. I had no objection to soldiers being on their guard against the IRA and taking elementary precautions.

And he had been so clever, directing us on to an icy road on which we would not have been able to make a getaway. And the copper was such a laugh.

Twenty four hours later Birmingham was bleeding and the whole country was in shock and nobody was laughing. Twenty-one people were dead and nearly 200 injured in one of the most callous and cynical attacks of the whole of the Troubles; the slaughter of ordinary civilians. And now an Irishman living in England was going to be more aware of suspicion and contempt.

There had always been a low level of audible disdain. Not everyone who called you "Paddy" intended to offend; they just didn't credit you with the sensitivity to notice and that you were more a walking symbol of a country than an actual human individual.

I remember an Irish barman explaining to me that England was perfectly friendly and accepting of the Irish so long as you didn't draw attention to yourself; make an issue of it. In short they liked house-trained Paddies. And he was so house-trained that he didn't see the problem.

Which was that this reasoning started from an assumption that Irish people would be awkward at first, but could learn to behave.

I was away when my home was raided. I was living in a shared house near Lancaster Castle where the trial of the Birmingham Six was to be held, so the local police were checking out Irish people in the vicinity.

Detectives had gone through my drawers and cupboards, checked out what I was reading and sifted through some torn pages in the grate of the fireplace.

When I got back and heard about this, I went to the station to ask if they wanted me for anything, and nobody knew anything about it.

I was in a circle of friends, some of whom attracted police attention for their smoking habits. A guy who lived in the same house as me was a drug dealer, specialising mostly in cannabis, so police interest in the house was a mixture of monitoring the Irish guys and disrupting the local dope trade and, perhaps because these overlapped, I didn't much notice the possible danger.

I had heard strong claims from other Irish in England that the Birmingham Six were innocent, and friends occasionally warned me that if I did fall foul of the law I could end up with false charges being levelled against me.

One day a friend brought a man to the house and he showed us a gun. Our friend was English and we understood that he had a job in the Probation Service. The man with the gun was a "colleague".

It was a rusty old pistol, perhaps a Beretta, the type where you pull back a bracket on the top to cock it. The game was to see who could do this. There was a knack. I couldn't get the hang of it, but others did.

And then our friend's friend left the house with the gun with my fingerprints on it. And, if this was all innocent, it is very strange because nobody just stumbles on a rusty pistol.

And, if it wasn't innocent, then I had provided a police agent or some such with sufficient evidence to send me to jail for years, should anyone decide that that might be a good idea.

At a time when the English police were fitting up Paddies for bombings they had nothing to do with, I had been incredibly careless, but nothing came of it.

During the Birmingham Six trial I was aware of the security and the media interest, but though the police had searched my room I had no sense of any of my friends or neighbours turning against me.

But it was better not to talk politics, or someone in the company might decide that you needed to have it explained to you more emphatically that it's wrong to bomb pubs, assuming you wouldn't get that, unless the case was made with some force.

During my time in England and on later trips I hitchhiked often up and down the M6 and I encountered no anti-Irish feeling among the neighbourly and decent kind of people who would take a stranger into their car.

But there was an odd moment, in 1984, when I was picked up by a crowd of fellas in a van.

All the chatter was about the bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton which had nearly taken the life of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. These guys were excited about this and said they had suspected at first that militant miners had been behind it. This was the time of the miners' strike.

They were happy about the bomb. If I had claimed credit for it, they would have simply thanked me. Which appalled me.

These days it is a relief not to have people in England casually assume that I am a bomber, whether to stitch me up, blame me or to thank me.

Somewhere around the early-1980s it became cool to be Irish and I was as likely to be taken for a cute and puckish wee man as for a skulking terrorist. Though each approach was as patronising as the other.

Today people hardly notice. Most Irish people in England - millions of them - have English accents. Taking an Irish person now for an oddity, or a threat, simply betrays a limited knowledge of your own neighbourhood - let alone of Ireland.

On the rare occasions that still happens, I am the one who feels superior.

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