We did it to the Irish first

Heavy-handed anti-terror tactics have a history of making things worse

A couple in bed at 5am are awakened by a terrible banging downstairs. The next moment they are surrounded by armed police, uniformed and plain-clothed, who have knocked down the front door with a sledgehammer. They are ordered to get up and dress. The man is arrested, taken to Paddington Green police station, held for five days, questioned intensively and then released without any action being taken against him.

It is a chain of events that will be increasingly familiar to Muslims across Britain, but this case actually involved an Irish couple dealt with under the Prevention of Terrorism Act about 20 years ago.

The July bomb attacks on London and the shooting dead of the Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes have heightened the feeling among Muslims that they are collectively suspect. Not since the conflict in Northern Ireland was at its height has one ethnic minority felt targeted in such a way.

When the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974 was passed, immediately after the Birmingham and Guildford pub bombings that same year, the Irish in Britain felt its full force. They were routinely stopped and interrogated at ports and airports; their houses were raided; they were held for anything from a few hours to seven days, then usually let go without charge. The statistics are striking: 7,052 people were detained under the act between 1974 and 1991; of those, 86 per cent were released without charge. So far as the Irish community was concerned, the message was clear: merely to be Irish was to arouse suspicion.

The use of anti-terror laws and an underlying racism towards the Irish resulted in the miscarriages of justice involving the Birmingham Six, Judith Ward, the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven - running sores of resentment for Irish people in the 1970s and 1980s. Attacks on Irish people were often not reported in the media or followed up by the police.

The community shrank in on itself. In Liverpool many Irish people went absent from work the day after a bombing atrocity, for fear of reprisals. Irish clubs developed as a network of havens where people could mix with their own. The Irish Post newspaper was established in 1970 to publish news of the community not available in national or local media.

On the political front the Irish in Britain, for many years strongly present in the Labour Party, retreated from the scene. It was only with the Northern Ireland peace process that they began to assert themselves politically and culturally.

In short, the Prevention of Terrorism Act caused injustice, alienated law-abiding citizens and created resentment among people whose co-operation could have been invaluable for government and police. Worse, there can be little doubt that it increased sympathy for the IRA. And yet there is scarcely a shred of evidence that it prevented any terrorism.

Now Muslims say they are being treated in a similar way. They have been pulled over for questioning at airports or ferry terminals and picked on for no apparent reason other than their ethnic origin. And, as the human rights solicitor Gareth Peirce explains, it isn't just the police who are active. "Innumerable people," she says, "have had a knock on the door, an approach in the street, an obstruction in the aisle at Tesco's from an individual saying he was from the security services." Last February Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four, noted the resemblance to the world of the 1970s. "The only difference is that the colour and the religion has changed," he said.

One policing method once used against Irish people and now deployed against Muslims is disruption. Designed to unsettle terror cells operating in immigrant communities, disruption involves arrests that will not necessarily result in charges. "The wide-scale raids against members of the Muslim community are in line with the infamous national anti-terrorist strategy of disruption, which had such counter-productive effects on the Irish community," says a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain. "Many Muslim leaders believe disruption is beginning to alienate communities from the police. There is a wealth of information bearing testimony to the way the anti-terror regime in the 1980s forced the Irish in England underground, providing a fertile ground for the cultivation of terrorism."

There is a pattern of detaining Muslims under anti-terror law but not charging them. Between 11 September 2001 and June 2004 there were 609 arrests under anti-terror legislation. Of those 609 people, 99 were charged and only 15 convicted of anti-terror offences.

Off the record, the Home Office says it wants to learn the lessons of the Irish experience, yet new anti-terror laws show every sign of alienating Muslims in just the way the Irish experienced in the 1970s.

When a community draws in on itself, that is bad news. For the few terrorists who may be plotting bomb outrages, there is likely to be far more opportunity to hide, and the feeling of collective isolation and threat will foster sympathy where there may have been none. When that happens, both community relations and the drive to prevent terrorism are damaged.

Paul Donovan is a columnist for the Irish Post