I REMEMBER our teacher saying to us in the late 1970s — to a class of boys in a Catholic secondary school in Birmingham where if you were Catholic you might just be English, could be Polish or Italian but were most likely Irish — to be careful and watch out if our neighbours were Irish.
To our growing bemusement as we looked around at each other not knowing whether to laugh or not, he warned us that we should keep a close eye on our Irish neighbours’ garages and what was going on there, to be aware of the movement of their cars.
We didn’t know whether to laugh then or later for the fact most of us were, aside from not knowing too many people with a car never mind a garage, Irish neighbours.
Now to be fair our city had seen the pub bombings and the IRA’s war against the British state was in full, bloody flow. On each side people killed each other with an abandon that made the possibility of peace seem, well, impossible.
The fact remains though that for that period of time it was the Irish community that was Britain’s demonised and suspect community.
Look back at some of the cartoons that appeared in the daily papers of that time, for instance, and see the Irish depicted as creatures that are barely human, and more of a sideburn wearing ape. In the broader English mind the Irish were addicted to violence and killing each other.
And of course they were thick and stupid to boot.
Now I’m not going to pretend that was something as young teenagers that we felt too deeply. We didn’t walk out of that classroom feeling victimised, we just took it as the latest nonsensical ramblings from a teacher.
But — and there is a but in this — growing up amongst the Irish community in Britain in that time, the time of the Birmingham Six and Auntie Annie’s Bomb Factory, was to be aware that the Irish were deemed to be suspect.
Amongst our stupidity and drunkenness we were all somehow involved in the Troubles and the killings and the bombings.
In that regard at least, with our Irish names and our Irish parents, we were Irish in a way that made being Irish something hostile.
Certainly in the city that I came from, after the pub bombings, a sense of Irishness went underground and a sense of Irishness became embedded in the face of a hostility that the warmth and ‘coolness’ that now surrounds being Irish could not have dreamed of.
Of course, the Irish are no longer the suspect community and we are all close and happy friends in a way that only comes fully about by pretending that the past never happened.
It did though and much of the warmth between our two countries is as flimsy and shallow as those who practice it. That Union Jack is never going to be wrapped around my shoulders nor is that three lions badge ever going to be across my chest. But, hey, it’s better than killing each other, isn’t it?
I’m thinking of all this recently as I watch the black flags of the Islamic State rampaging across Syria and Iraq and realise that Britain now has a new suspect community. That the prejudices that are sometimes masked by our new friendship are now happily settling on a new set of people.
Quite clearly some British Muslims are fighting beneath the black flags of Islamic State and quite clearly the Islamic State is as good as near to 1930s Nazis as you could ever hope not to meet.
Quite clearly too the Muslim community in Britain and the British authorities have work to do in understanding why disenchanted, disenfranchised young men and women from British streets see such a brutal, backward looking organisation as the future.
Just as true though must be the fact — as it was in the 1970s and 1980s with the Irish — that the rise of Islamic State and the involvement of killers with a British background gives many in society the opportunity to wheel out a set of prejudices and bigotry that they always keep handy in case they come across those who are somehow the other.
Once it was the murderous Irish, then it was the rioting blacks and now it is the bloodthirsty Muslims.
The suspects change but the bigotry and prejudice is consistent.
We shouldn’t forget this when Muslims are demonised. It’s them now but it was us once.