London Metropolitan University Research Institutes

ESRC 'Suspect Communities'

Counter terrorism and Irish and Muslim communities

Professor Mary J Hickman was awarded funding to hold a public event
on 1 November in Birmingham as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science 2011.
The festival objectives are to celebrate the diversity of ESRC research by promoting
and increasing awareness of ESRC and social science, and its impact on UK society
and increase public awareness, understanding and engagement with social science
amongst the UK population, in particular the public and young people.
(full details below)

“Suspect communities”? Counterterrorism Policy, the Press, and the impact
on Irish and Muslim Communities in Britain

THE  RT. HON. KEITH VAZ MP, Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee
launched the above policy report in the Houses of Parliament on 7 July 2011

Suspect Communities Findings July2011.pdf  Download Report here
See photos

For more information, to interview Professor Mary Hickman please contact:
Madeleine Kingston 020 7133 2927

A comparative study of the representation of ‘suspect’ communities in multi-ethnic Britain and of their impact on Muslim and Irish communities

ESRC-funded project: RES-062-23-1066
Start date: 01 October 2008
End date: 30 June 2010

Authors: Mary J Hickman and Lyn Thomas, Institute for the Study of European Transformations, London Metropolitan University; Sara Silvestri, Department of International Politics, City University London; and Henri Nickels, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Vienna, Austria. 

A Critical Discourse Analysis of British Newspaper Coverage of Irish and Muslim Communities, 1974-2007, Journalism Studies, Vol 13 No3 (forthcoming June 2012)
Henri C Nickels, Lyn Thomas, Mary J Hickman and Sara Silvestri

‘Constructing “Suspect” Communities and Britishness: Mapping British Press Coverage of Irish Communities and Muslim Communities, 1974-2007’, European Journal of Communication, Issue 27(2) (forthcoming June 2012)
Henri C Nickels, Lyn Thomas, Mary J Hickman and Sara Silvestri

  First Findings

Since the events of 11 September 2001 in the USA and the bombings in London in July 2005, the situation of Muslim people in contemporary Britain has sometimes been compared to that of Irish communities during the 1970s and the 1980s. Prior to our study, no systematic research had been carried out to draw out parallels and differences between the experiences of these communities. Our collaborative research project addresses this through a comparison of the social construction of ‘suspect communities’ in a historical period (1974-2007) that has been marked by comparable acts of terrorism, policing practices, counter-terrorism and other policy responses, and extensive media coverage. These events and responses have occurred in a fast-changing globalized context where immigration and information flows, and increasing religio-ethnic diversity are perceived as challenging traditional notions of stability, security, and national identity.

Our use of the term ‘suspect communities’ derives from Paddy Hillyard’s 1993 study on the impact of the Prevention of Terrorism legislation over the years on Irish communities in Britain. He argued that the implementation of this legislation rendered all Irish persons living in Britain ‘suspect’, which contributed to fostering a climate of (mutual) fear. We test the validity of the notion of ‘suspect community’ in the current era, which is defined by a perceived Muslim threat. We examine the extent to which this concept can contribute a better understanding of the comparison between two eras, two perceived terror threats and two sets of communities that share a number of similarities.

Interim Findings: Media Study

The aim of the media study was to compare and contrast the construction of Irish and Muslim communities as ‘suspect’ in the press. This analysis offers a base from which to compare media discourses with policy discourses and self-reported experiences of Irish and Muslim people in the period under investigation. The extent and the characteristics of press coverage were mapped by means of a descriptive statistical analysis of the complete sample of collected news items. The discourses relating to the construction of Irish and Muslim communities as ‘suspect’ were identified and analyzed using critical discourse analysis for a purposive sample of news items, as described below.

The press sample was drawn from eight national newspapers (Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Sun and their Sunday equivalents) and three diaspora newspapers (Asian Times, Irish Post, Muslim News). The readerships of these newspapers cover a range of socio-economic classes, political convictions, and religio-ethnic backgrounds, thereby allowing us to chart the construction of communities as ‘suspect’ in a cross-section of the British press. In total, we collected 2,789 news items, spanning the month following the occurrence of each key event (except for the Good Friday Agreement and the 2000 and 2006 Terrorism Acts, where the time span of the policymaking process was taken into account). We retained the 367 news items within this sample that took a societal or analytical perspective on the events and issues they covered. From this, we narrowed the selection down further to a purposive sample of 37 news items providing a cross-section of press coverage of the 19 events. These were then assembled into packages corresponding to the thematic categories outlined.

Mapping Analysis

One of the most significant differences we note from our  Mapping Analysis
is the tendency of the press to downplay the representation of the Irish as a whole as a threat, especially when compared with the tendency to magnify and extend the perceived threat posed by Muslims to entire communities. We found that Muslims were homogenized as a cultural and religious Other outside Britishness. Whereas, the Irish/IRA tend to be homogenized as a threat to British institutions and the British State.

The press participates in the construction of Irish and Muslim communities as ‘suspect’ in public discourse to varying degrees and in divergent ways. This can vary according to the newspaper concerned, its political orientation, and the perceived social significance of the event being reported. The press also highlights human rights and civil liberties issues affecting members of both communities caused by the implementation of counter-terrorism, and, this, increasingly so in the contemporary period .

Critical Discourse Analysis

Here we report the critical discourse analysis of the package of news items relating to reactions to bombings, where we identified seven recurring discourses. While there is a degree of consensus within the national and diaspora press, the press does not offer a uniform representation of Irish and Muslim communities.

One of our major findings is that the reporting of Irish experiences has set a precedent for the reporting  of Muslim experiences and can be used as a prism through which to observe and evaluate coverage of Muslims in the current period. The discourses we have identified are as follows:

HOMOGENIZATION: Irish and Muslim communities tend to be homogenized into monolithic wholes in the news.
INCLUSION/EXCLUSION: Members of Irish and Muslim communities are often represented as being at once inside and outside British civil society.
INNOCENT IRISH & MODERATE MUSLIMS VS. THREATENING & EXTREMIST IRISH AND MUSLIMS: The majority of Irish and Muslim people are constructed as being law-abiding, innocent and moderate, while a minority of individuals and groups are represented as a threat and as extremists. Alongside, and blurring this opposition, is the notion of the enemy within communities, the ‘rotten apple on the tree’.
IRISHOPHOBIA AND ISLAMOPHOBIA ARE SELF-INFLICTED: There is a consensus within the analyzed news items that anti-Irish and anti-Muslim backlashes mainly result from the actions carried out by bombers with an Irish or Muslim background.
CONSTRUCTING BRITISHNESS IN RELATION TO THE OTHER: The analyzed news items suggest that bombings lead to a reinforcement of British identity in the face of adversity.
SEIZING THE MORAL HIGH GROUND: The authors of the analyzed news items attempt to seize the moral high ground and to put as much distance between themselves and perceived extremists as they can, by deploying a vocabulary that strongly condemns the perpetrators of acts of physical or symbolic violence against British civil society.
THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING ‘SUSPECT’: There is recognition in the national and diaspora press of the effects of being perceived as ‘suspect’ on members of Irish and Muslim communities.

Interim Findings: Policy Study

This part of the study aims at examining whether and how national identity, national security, religion, race, and ethnicity have been articulated, defined, and re-defined by British policy actors in the process of coming to terms with the 19 events chosen for analysis. We collected and reviewed 745 policy documents relating to these events from a variety of sources, including: 65 laws, 395 documents written by relevant royal commissions, government ministries, the police, independent reviewers, parliamentary committees, and local authorities; 241 parliamentary debates and speeches; 23 speeches delivered on the occasion of the annual Police Foundation Lectures; and 21 Written Answers. The areas covered most intensively within these documents were Terrorism, Race and Policing, followed by Migration and Justice, with Race and Religion not figuring as stand alone issues.

To provide insight into the frequency and intensity with which certain issues emerged in parliamentary debates throughout the time-span under investigation, we also carried out a keyword search in Hansard. This search showed the dominance of the term ‘terrorism’ in the period 1974-2005, which peaked in 2001, when it was mentioned 2,393 times. The second most frequently used term was ‘Irish’. The keywords ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ featured very little in parliamentary debates, although there were small peaks in 1980 (corresponding with the aftermath of the Iranian revolution) and in both 2001 and 2003, corresponding with the events of 9/11 and the war in Iraq.

Because the production of policies and legislation is often initiated as a response to an issue or event, we divided the collected documents into purposive samples of policy documents relating to each event. We thereby isolated policy packages consisting of a small number of documents that will be analyzed in depth in conjunction with the media material and the data from the key informant interviews and discussion groups.

When identifying these packages, we focused primarily on the formulation, discussion, implementation and contestation of security and counter-terrorism measures. Whereas official documents relating to issues that have gradually become securitized in Britain (e.g. migration, race, ethnicity and religion) did not constitute, per se, the central objects of our examination, they were nevertheless included: these issues are not simply part of the backcloth, but provide crucial reading keys into the material under analysis. For instance, the 2000 and 2006 Terrorism Acts made temporary, emergency, anti-terrorist legislation introduced in 1974 permanent; and, the articulation of the ‘good/moderate Muslim’-‘bad/radical Muslim’ discourse that circulated in policy circles after the July 2005 bombings cannot simply be put down to the effects of the 2001 attacks in the USA or the 2004 attack in Madrid.

In this context, it is interesting to note that whereas the need to respect ‘diversity’ is discussed frequently in relation to religion (esp. Islam) in the 2000s, awareness of diversity initially emerged in British society through the acknowledgement of minorities that were racialized as visibly different. This had the effect of excluding public recognition of minorities (e.g. Irish Catholics) that did not look visibly different from the majority population.

While political actors rarely if ever made speeches explicitly relating to Catholicism when addressing the IRA bombing campaign in Britain, since the 1990s there were frequent and open mentions of Islam and Muslims under New Labour. This shows both an attempt to extend the parameters of what was problematized within New Labour’s ‘project’ of social cohesion, and a shift in public perceptions of terrorism. The IRA had come to be understood and fought as a domestic problem, whereas so-called Islamist terrorism came to be framed ontologically as an attack on globally shared liberal values and on British society.

Nevertheless, both the policy study and the direct experiences of our interviewees and discussion group participants indicate that in reality the type of reactions to the terrorist threat on the part of the establishment (e.g. the definition and implementation of anti-terror laws and policing methods), and the effects of counter-terrorism measures upon the two communities did not really differ, as they were embedded in same understandings of race, ethnicity and religion specific to the British historical and social context. Thus, our attempt to understand, over time, processes of suspectification and de-suspectification of communities in British society enables us also to unveil transformations and contradictions in the role, functioning, and self- and public perception of British state institutions at the turn of the century.

Key Informant Interviews & Discussion Groups

We conducted 40 key informant interviews, 22 in London and 18 in Birmingham with a range of policy actors, activists, stakeholders, community leaders, and media professionals who have first-hand knowledge of the two communities and key events between 1974 and 2007. Their expert knowledge provided insights on the generation and impacts of representations of communities as ‘suspect’ and changes over time. Their participation enabled the researchers to obtain a fuller picture of local issues and community concerns prior to holding the discussion groups.

We conducted seven discussion groups, three in Birmingham and four in London. These small groups brought together between four and eight Muslim and Irish people to discuss their experiences. In total, 38 people of various socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds participated in these groups (19 Irish—9 men and 10 women; 19 Muslims—10 men and 9 women). We were concerned to understand the impact on people of ‘being suspect’ and also to explore if it is helpful to share experiences. The areas of discussion included: fears and feelings of being suspect; community and individual responses to counter-terrorism policies; the roles of the media, government and the police in counter-terrorism; and relations between different minority ethnic groups in Britain now and in the past.

Project Description

Irish communities and Muslim communities in Britain have been and continue to be constructed as ‘suspect’ and as threatening the fabric of British life, whether in political discourse, policy discourse, media discourse or public opinion. This construction process is heavily influenced by the implementation of counterterrorist policy, which has led to grave violations of civil liberties, with many Irish and Muslims wrongfully arrested, deported, excluded, imprisoned or even killed as a result of their religio-ethnic backgrounds.

The research aims to establish how the characterization of entire communities as suspect in a context of politically motivated violence accompanied by the implementation of counterterrorism policies impacts upon communities. In this 18-month project, we investigate transformations over time in the social construction of Irish communities and Muslim communities in Britain in policy and media discourses, spanning the period between 1974 and 2007. We are also carrying out key informant interviews with political, policy and media actors, as well as with activists and community leaders. These key informant interviews will be complemented by discussion groups with members of Irish communities and Muslim communities, the aims of which are to discover if such exchanges are useful, explore whether individuals feel they are perceived as suspect, and what impact being constructed as suspect has upon them and their communities.

The project will provide a new analysis of the Irish experience and compare this with current Muslim experiences. The research as a whole will not only contribute new understandings of the changing articulations of religion, ethnicity and race in the representation and construction of suspect communities in Britain. It will also contribute new understandings of the tensions between constructing entire communities as suspect and the political project of creating a cohesive multi-ethnic and multi-faith society in Britain. As such, the research builds upon and complements two recent research programmes of the ESRC – New Security Challenges and (jointly with the AHRC) Religion and Society – and is of key relevance to contemporary policy concerns.


The principal objectives of the project are:

  • To investigate how counterterrorism measures and media representations contribute to the construction of suspect communities
  • To compare the similarities and differences in these constructions and their relationship to the ideological project of Britishness
  • To carry out an exploratory study of the impact of these constructions on Irish and Muslim communities, and of the value of comparing these experiences
  • To draw conclusions of academic, policy and community relevance from the comparison of the Muslim and Irish cases and experiences
  • To disseminate these findings to a range of audiences, including research participants in London and Birmingham, policymakers, academics, community groups, activists, NGOs, and media practitioners.

Research Questions

The research questions of the project are:

  • How is a community constructed as ‘suspect’ in public discourse (government and media) and through the implementation of counterterrorism measures?
  • How have both the Irish and Muslims been transformed in discourses of the British media and government over time?
  • What symbolic and discursive continuities are there in relation to both communities?
  • What differences and similarities are there in the construction and representation of Irish and Muslims as ‘suspect’ communities, in the context of different terrorist threats, colonial pasts, and over time?
  • How do religion, race and ethnicity intersect in the construction of these ‘suspect’ communities?
  • What impacts do representations of being ‘suspect’ and counterterrorism measures have for the everyday experiences and sense of belonging of members of these communities?
  • How do these constructions and representations of ‘suspect’ communities inform
    reconfigurations and representations of Britishness?

Research Team

The interdisciplinary team that has been assembled is very well equipped to deliver this research.

The Principal Investigator is Prof. Mary Hickman, who is director of the project. Mary has written widely on the Irish in Britain and on issues of religion, ethnicity, race and integration more generally. She also has extensive experience in using the methodologies of interviews and discussion groups.

Dr Sara Silvestri (City University London and Cambridge University – Co-investigator) brings to the project her expertise on Muslim identity politics, mobilization and public policies pertaining Islam and counterterrorism. She is responsible for the policy area of the project, which entails gathering, collating and analyzing a range of policy documents emanating from a variety of sources. Sara is also extensively involved in setting up and conducting key informant interviews and discussion groups. An interdisciplinary political scientist who privileges qualitative research, Sara teaches Religion in International Relations and Islamic political thought and regularly consults for the policy community.

The Media study is coordinated by Dr Lyn Thomas (Co-investigator and media specialist). Lyn has written widely on the relationship between religion, spirituality and the media. She also has extensive experience in using the methodologies of critical discourse analysis and literary criticism.

Lyn supervises and works closely with Dr Henri Nickels, the Research Fellow on the project. Henri is responsible for gathering, collating and analyzing newspaper coverage from the mainstream press (Daily Mail & Mail on Sunday, Daily Telegraph & Sunday Telegraph, Guardian & Observer, Sun & News of the World) and the diaspora press (Asian Times, Irish Post, Muslim News). Henri is also involved in several other aspects of the research including setting up and conducting key informant interviews and discussion groups. Henri previously worked on a project based at the University of Surrey that compared representations of Islam as security threat on British, French and Russian television.


Working paper

Henri C. Nickels, Lyn Thomas, Mary J. Hickman & Sara Silvestri (2009) A comparative study of the representations of ‘suspect’ communities in multi-ethnic Britain and of their impact on Irish communities and Muslim communities – Mapping newspaper content. ISET Working Paper 13.

Conference papers and presentations

Sara Silvestri, Mary J. Hickman, Lyn Thomas & Henri Nickels (2010) Suspect Communities: Irish, Muslims and Counterterrorism in Britain, 1974-2007. Paper presented at the Threatening Religions, National Interest, and International Security panel convened by Sara Silvestri for the annual conference of the International Studies Association, New Orleans, USA, 16-19 February 2010.

Henri C. Nickels, Lyn Thomas, Mary J. Hickman & Sara Silvestri (2010). Suspect communities and the enemy within: Representations of Muslims and the Irish in the British press . Paper presented at the Islam and the Media conference, Center for Media, Religion and Culture, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Colorado, Boulder, 7-10 January 2010.

Henri C. Nickels, Lyn Thomas, Mary J. Hickman & Sara Silvestri (2009) Suspect Communities and the Enemy Within – Press Representations of the Irish and Muslim Communities in Britain, 1974 – 2007. Paper presented at the AHRC Diasporas, Migration and Identities Programme/CRONEM Conference 2009 Diasporas, Migration and Identities: Crossing Boundaries, New Directions, University of Surrey, 11-12 June 2009.

Public talks/seminars

Hickman, Mary, J., Nickels, Henri C., Silvestri, Sara & Thomas, Lyn (2010) The Construction of 'Suspect' Communities in Britain 1974-2007: Comparing the impact on Irish and Muslim communities, Presentation to the Communities and Local Government Committee, House of Commons, 17 March 2010.

Hickman, Mary, J., Nickels, Henri C., Silvestri, Sara & Thomas, Lyn (2010) The Construction of 'Suspect' Communities in Britain 1974-2007: Comparing the impact on Irish and Muslim communities, Public Seminar, London Metropolitan University, 5 March 2010.

Hickman, Mary J. & Silvestri, Sara (2009) Irish and Muslim Communities as ‘suspect’. Public talk given at the meeting of the Urban Network of the Catholic Association for Racial Justice, 14 October, 2009.

Hickman, Mary J. (2008) 'Suspect' communities in multi-ethnic Britain: comparing the impact of being 'suspect' on Muslim and Irish communities. Public seminar given at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) Autumn Seminar Series 2008, University of Surrey, Guildford, 10 November 2008.

For any more information on the project, please contact:
Professor Mary Hickman
+44 (0)20 7133 2927


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