Cities get under your skin, imprint an individual and collective civic pride that defines your identity and sense of community. Though I grew up in nearby Buxton in Derbyshire, Manchester – or more accurately – Greater Manchester has been my home for nearly 25 years. The city has powerfully moulded my life through education, culture, politics, sport, and its people.
Like many, I woke up on Tuesday morning to the awful news that 22 people – many children – had been murdered and scores more seriously injured in this most cowardly of acts. And it had happened in our city.
It was a beautiful day in Manchester, the sun shone and the skies were blue. But people in the “rainy city” did not grasp a rare opportunity to bask in the warmth of the late spring sunshine with their usual enthusiasm. Instead they grieved – privately and publicly – for those who lost their lives and were injured by the devastating bomb attack on concert-goers leaving the Manchester Arena.
Since then, I have felt numb, struggling to find the words to convey my sense of grief, anger and despair. And I am not alone.
Attending the vigil on Tuesday night outside Manchester Town Hall and the growing memorial in St Ann’s Square, I have come to realise that the trauma of the recent terrorist attack will take a long to time for the city to come to terms with.
Of course, this is not the first time that Manchester has experienced the trauma of a terrorist bombing. I remember the IRA attack in June 1996 well. I lived near to the city centre in Salford at the time and can remember the shock waves of the bomb shaking my student tower block and making my hair stand on end.
Although 200 people were tragically injured in the attack, no one died. This is in part because someone – presumed to be from the IRA – telephoned a warning to the Samaritans branch in Manchester. This allowed over 80,000 people in the city centre to leave before it exploded.
Over the weeks and months that followed the attack, there was widespread shock across as the city as people attempted to come to terms with what had happened. The devastation of the area around the Arndale Centre quickly became a hinterland within the city – and a powerful daily reminder of the impact of terrorism.
Like many who live in Manchester who have Irish heritage, I also remember the concerns of a potential anti-Irish backlash.
A city reborn
But fears of a backlash were quickly dispelled as political and public response towards the city’s sizeable Irish communities was nuanced and mutually restorative. Crucially, there was no attempt by populist politicians to stoke anti-Irish sentiment.
The Northern Irish peace process that began in 1997 further desensitised the political resonance of the bombing. And although the IRA bomb was not the genesis of the regeneration of the city centre, it did provide a significant stimulus and it underpinned the civic narrative of a city reborn.
But the bomb on the night of May 22 was different. We probably won’t see significant change in the global political circumstances that most likely drove the suicide bomber and his collaborators to undertake this most craven attack. And the ability of the UK government to have the capacity to bring peace to Libya or the Middle East more widely is limited.
So the Manchester Arena bombing will likely become the latest in a growing list of atrocities linked to the ongoing “war against terror” that is so difficult to see a conclusion to. And this will make the process of coming to terms with what has happened and reconciliation more difficult.
Politics of fear
Much has been said about the unique and resilient nature of a shared “Manchester spirit” and an associated “northern grit”. Since the attack, the response of the city has been at times breathtaking in its warmth, inclusivity, and resolve. But while these are qualities that I recognise and embrace with pride, they might prove not to be uniform or universal in their appeal or expression.
It is likely that the Muslim community of Manchester will be castigated and asked to take collective responsibility by some – in a way that the Irish community was not in 1996. Fears abound that some populist politicians and far-right bigots will use the bombing to exacerbate tensions with the Muslim community, and some have already resorted to more direct means of recrimination.
To recover, the city will need to adopt an innovative approach which builds on the current outpouring of collective emotions and draws on its civic reputation and identity.
This will require the creation of open and safe spaces for all communities to engage in appropriately sensitive but honest dialogue. Such an approach will also need to embrace the fact that the devastating impact of the bomb has been felt well beyond Greater Manchester, and has affected the lives of many, both in the UK and across the rest of the world.