On the night of 21 November 1974, bombs ripped apart two pubs in central Birmingham, killing 21 people and injuring 200. Six men from the local Irish community were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment but were subsequently cleared after a long campaign.
The event also ripped through Birmingham’s population, turning it against its large Irish community. The annual St Patrick’s Day parade was cancelled and not revived for more than 20 years. The Irish community was vilified and blamed, its voices silenced and its own grief and trauma ignored. It was not until 2014, 40 years after the bombings, that an oral history project, initiated by the University of Birmingham’s history department in collaboration with Birmingham’s Irish community organisations, sought to open up a conversation between and among its communities.
The first of a series of witness seminars was held, bringing together a panel of witnesses from the families of those who died, survivors, members of the attending emergency services and representatives of Birmingham’s Irish communities to try to understand how the event impacted the city, its people and communities. This, and the subsequent erection of a memorial at the city’s main station, are known as the Misneach project.
The involvement in these seminars of the Birmingham counselling charity Immigrant Counselling and Psychotherapy (ICAP) is, for Maureen Slattery-Marsh, groundbreaking. She is one of ICAP’s senior therapists, Chair of BACP Spirituality and among the panel of speakers giving one of the keynote presentations at the Let the Voices Be Heard conference on social justice, jointly organised by BACP with the American Counseling Association and the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, in Belfast next month.
The panel includes fellow Birmingham-based therapist Salma Yaqoob and historians Professor Gavin Schaffer of Birmingham University and Dr Saima Nasar of Bristol University. The latter two have jointly been researching the impact of the witness seminars and recovery of marginalised voices in helping heal community division and trauma. In the keynote session they will be drawing links with the impact of the 9/11 attacks on New York, the 7/7 bombings in London and the more recent Manchester Arena bomb in May 2017.
‘Misneach is Irish for courage in the face of adversity – a very particular sort of spirited courage that’s imbued with hope and resilience. It’s a very rich concept,’ Maureen says. ICAP was asked to provide a therapist/counselling presence to help with information-giving, mediating and debriefing at the witness seminars. It also contributed a vital reflective listening role in the Misneach memorial planning process.
‘It wasn’t something we had done before. It was very different to our usual outreach community work,’ says Maureen. ‘We felt quite tentative about where it could take us.’ But it exemplifies for her the kind of work that counsellors can do if they are truly to embody the principles of social justice. ‘Irish people in Birmingham had taken on a malignant shame identity. We could see the potential for the oral history project as a conduit to further a process of communal healing, where tensions could be eased and people could develop different understandings of each other.’
Maureen’s background includes teaching, reconciliation work in Northern Ireland and research into the role of the Church in the Rwandan massacres and the Northern Irish Troubles. ‘Social justice is an aspiration concept,’ she says. ‘To give it flesh, you have got to look at where you offer your services and skills. It’s there in individual work, in helping a client find their voice to speak out in situations where they are being disempowered. But an essential dimension of social justice work is taking the risk of stepping outside our traditional sphere and working with communities who have been silenced, marginalised or traumatised, and looking at what we as therapists and as agencies can offer to contribute to healing.’
Maureen hopes the conference will provide a space where participants can explore opportunities for therapeutic involvement in advocating for social justice in their communities and build links with other activists. ‘I hope it will help people find their voice, identify different voices that haven’t been heard, gain their voice if they have been subject to exclusion and silencing, and make new connections,’ she says.
‘Let the Voices Be Heard: an international conversation on counselling, psychotherapy and social justice’ takes place on 10–12 October in Belfast. Join us there or watch live via webcast.