Comparing the Experiences of German, Irish and Muslim Communities in the United Kingdom

Thinking of community conjures up images and feelings of sharing, of warmth and belonging. Community provides us with security and identity: invariably community is held to be a positive resource.

For the past decade however scholars from a number of disciplines have been grappling with the concept, and experience of belonging, to a ‘suspect community’. The term was originally coined by Paddy Hillyard and had a certain catch phrase utility to describe the categorisation and treatment of Irish people in Britain during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Excellent research has widely documented anti- Irish attitudes across the globe evidenced in government policies, the media and public behaviour. As well there has been a flourishing of stellar multidisciplinary studies devoted to the manifestations of Islamophobia in government, public institutions, police, security and justice sectors, the media and wider public culture. By comparison only a handful of works attempt to uncover anti- German attitudes in Britain.

Germans formed a major immigrant community that began to peak in the middle of the nineteenth century.  They constituted the largest national group in Britain; by 1911 this was a community of nearly 60 000 people of which over 6000 had become naturalised British citizens. (1) Many moved easily into the upper echelons of a heavily class segregated society. These facts make the dearth of research on this community and its influential contributions to British society rather surprising.

So enmeshed in British life was the German community, that at the outbreak of war the government had no plans for actions against German nationals, with the exception of spies. The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 marked a critical turning point in the tolerance of the government and the public. A series of bodies were established to propagate Germanophobia such as the Parliament Recruiting Committee and the Department of Information. Wartime legislation focused on controlling their movements, repatriation and later internment, but also the closure clubs and restaurants and seizure of German owned businesses.

After the First World War the German community in Britain contracted to just over 20 000.(2) The government was one of the most important organisations responsible for spreading anti German propaganda and enacting measures against Germans residing in Britain during the First World War.

In the years leading to the outbreak of the Second World War the number of Germans in Britain swelled again to over 60 000. Overwhelmingly this influx was the result of refugees, mainly Jews and left wing opponents, fleeing from Nazi Germany. Churchill’s government however introduced and defended a policy of arrest and detention of all male Germans claiming it was necessary to ‘collar the lot’. This time there would be no period of indulgence of ordinary citizens and even British women married to German men were targeted. Local authorities were known to take their own initiative of penalising German communities by evicting them from council houses. In 1940 theMinistry of Informationlaunched an “Anger Campaign” which included radio broadcasts from the political elite with emotive and vitriolic moral language, to instil a sense of personal anger against the British people and so strengthen British resolve against Germany.

Treatment of a suspect community is different when those individuals are or have been colonial subjects; the lines between a British identity and a suspect identity are far more blurred. The census indicates there are nearly one million people born in Ireland living in Britain today. Of that number between 6 and 14 million claim Irish ancestry, making the Irish Britain’s largest ethnic group. Perceptions of an Irish threat to Britain have waxed and waned over hundreds of years.  In the first half of the nineteenth century there were large numbers of Irish immigrants in Britain and there were strong indications in the government that they constituted a threat, largely because of fear of an alliance between the British and Irish working class. This was a well founded fear because in fact there was political collaboration between Irish nationalists and British workers’ organisations, and especially with British radicals. The fear of radical Irish nationalism also induced widespread social phobias about the Irish, such as fear of contagion, fear of stealing jobs, fear of a Catholic invasion and in general the destruction of all of British society.(3)

Moving forward the construction of the concept of suspect community crystallised with the adoption of successive Prevention of Terrorism Acts between 1974 and 1989. These acts conferred emergency powers upon police forces where they suspected terrorism and were wildly and disproportionately applied to people of Irish origin. The strategy was enacted in response to the IRA bombing campaigns on mainland Britain and what was then perceived as the greatest threat to Britain since the Second World War. Millions of people of Irish descent were stopped at ports and airports, houses were raided and people detained for anything from a few hours to seven days. The Irish had become a suspect community.

One operation in particular stood out as an example of the scale of the disproportionate measures against the Irish community. In August 1971 Operation Demetrius was launched and armed soldiers conducted dawn raids on 342 suspected Irish terrorists. No loyalist paramilitaries were included in the sweep and many who were arrested had no links with republican paramilitaries.

Many of the arrested ended up in ‘Diplock’ courts which suspended the right to trial by jury in cases of terrorist charges. The Act could also suspend other key civil rights of due process by allowing suspects to be arrested and detained without charge or trial. The number of cases heard in Diplock courts reached a peak of 329 yearly in the mid-1980s. At the European Court of Human Rights the United Kingdom attempted to justify its use of treatment later held to be inhuman, cruel and amounting to torture. This largely centred on the standard practice of ‘the five techniques’, an intelligence gathering method that involved subjecting suspects to wall standing, hooding, noise, deprivation of sleep, food and drink. In one case, Irish terror suspects were deprived of their right to life.

As with German and Irish culture, Britain has had centuries of interaction with Islam and similarly Muslim communities in Britain began to have a notable presence by the end of the nineteenth century. That being said, then as today, a Muslim community is really at best a loose categorisation; the dazzling diversity amongst the two million Muslims in the UK from ethnicity, nationality and language, to sect and even caste make it impossible to identify one homogenous identity and community. The plethora of ways to be a Muslim in Britain has not, however, prevented Muslims from being stereotyped and regarded as a singular, ‘suspect’ community.

Uniquely, the British government subsequently began to regard terror suspects as criminals, during ‘The Troubles’ and this influence would continue, as most evidenced by conjoined pieces of legislation. Striking similarities have emerged post 9/11 between the impact and operation of the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Anti Crime and Security Act 2001, with the Prevention of Terrorism Acts during ‘The Troubles’. The acts attempted to address terrorism by denoting it as a criminal activity; but suspects arrested and charged with terrorism offences, during ‘The Troubles’ and 9/11 were distinguished from other categories of crime and criminals by these piece of legislation. The legislation provided for the violation of civil rights of Irish and Muslim terror suspects differentiating them from the rights afforded to other criminal suspects. The legislation indicates an attempt to normalise terrorism whilst simultaneously enabling governments to deal with terror suspects with exceptional measures.

The acts post 9/ 11 have been used disproportionately against Muslims, the vast majority of whom were not charged with terrorism offences if they were charged with anything at all. Of the 7 052 detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974 to 1991, 86 % were released without charge. Of the 500 Muslims detained between September 2001 and December 2003, 84.6% were released without charge; just two Muslims were actually convicted.

In addition to the continued use of Diplock courts against Muslim individuals accused of terrorism, secret trials and lengthy periods of detention without charge are common practices for terror suspects post 9/11. By the beginning of the 21stcentury the UK also began to notify the European Court of Human Rights of derogations concerning practices of detention and extradition, (extraordinary and otherwise) of terror suspects who were largely Muslim, to countries where they were likely to be tortured or otherwise have essential human rights violated such as a prompt and fair trial.

The political establishment has invariably regarded German, Irish and Muslim communities as suspect. Reactionary legislation has targeted German, Irish and Muslims communities. The examples from the case of the German suspect community in both World Wars is the most moving example of how this concept was grossly and unfairly enacted en masse against an entire community.

Reactions and responses to the presence of a suspect community has clearly embedded within the policies and prevention measures since the First World War. The major contrast is that in the case of the German community measures were deliberately and overtly targeting members of that community. Although the Prevention of Terror Acts, were borne of particular political periods and have been disproportionately used against Irish and Muslim communities, the legislation can and has in a few instance been applied to individuals from neither of these communities.

Each political era has critical differences that affect perceptions of threat and motivations to protect British security. Wider international political events and the actions of a few individuals have provoked a backlash against entire communities, stereotyping, targeting and denying them their human rights. In each political era the conflict emerged as the principal conflict of that time and was identified as the greatest threat to Western liberal democracies.

Arguably governments during the period of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and post 9/11 learned enough not to descend to using overt propaganda on the public. One additional seminal distinction from the treatment of German suspects communities has been the classing of terror suspects as criminals, a featured strategy through ‘The Troubles’ and post 9/11. The political establishment has invariably regarded German, Irish and Muslims communities as suspect and by designating them as the enemy within, justified their legislation and policies.

Suspect communities stigmatise whole communities with discernable effect. Both Irish and Muslim communities report that being treated as a member of a suspect community negatively impacts their everyday encounters. In all communities members have experienced verbal and physical abuse. Amongst the observable impacts shared by all three communities is the fuelling of fear and hostility as evidenced in discrimination, media reporting and criminal behaviour. A shared range of feelings include, anger, alienation, resignation, fear and resistance all of which undermine feelings of belonging and acceptance have been reported in members from German, Irish and Muslim communities.

The experience of being a member of a suspect community has a widespread and intense impact upon all aspects of an individual’s life. The value of community as a refuge is replaced by fear and marginalisation that comes with membership.

Legislation that contributes to the identification of a suspect community is for both Irish and Muslim communities a stark example of their inequality. The shattering of community cohesion however was most demonstrably born by the German community. Government measures taken during the First World War especially destroyed the thriving German communities of Britain.

Increasing equalities and anti discrimination legislation designed to protect minorities has not prevented the processes of construction of suspect amongst Irish communities and Muslim communities. Despite anti-discrimination legislation, Muslim communities today are subjected to  similar processes of construction as ‘suspect’ as Irish communities in the previous era. Hickeman et al’s research concluded that the representations of the Irish during ‘The Troubles’ coincides with, and indeed sets a precedent for, the treatment of Muslims today.(4)

Arguably lessons and examples from the treatment of the German communities influenced policies during ‘The Troubles’ and post 9/11. The urgent and sweeping reactions to suspect communities have embedded themselves in the political consciousness and given rise to prevention measures that are often practised on a systematic scale.

It is useful for policy makers, those working in community relations, activists and members of all communities to gain an understanding of the cost in human potential and dignity that is demanded when citizens are stereotyped and de-individualised into members of a ‘suspect community’. But equally a comparative approach reveals important almost eternal issues in community relations and the continuing imperative to explore and address prejudice and stigmatization.

End Notes

(1) Panayi 1

(2) Panayi 1

(3)Lewis 168

(4) Hickman et al 24


Hickman, Prof. Mary J., Thomas, Prof. Lyn, Nickels, Dr. Henri, Silvestri, Dr. Sara‘Suspect Communities’? Counter-terrorism policy, the press, and the impact on Irish and Muslim communities in Britain Report of a research project: A comparative study of the representations of ‘suspect’ communities in multi-ethnic Britain and of their impact on Muslim and Irish communities 1974-2007 July 2011 A Report for Policy Makers and the General Public July 2011

Lewis, Gail, Forming Nation, Framing Welfare Routledge 1998

Panayi, Panikos The enemy in our midst: Germans in Britain During the First World War Berg, New York, 1991



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