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Sunday 10 July 2005

The United Kingdom of decent people

I MAY be a Dub, but I'm also a proud Londoner - and never more so than today. First, on Wednesday, there was the euphoria engendered by our winning the Olympic bid.

When I heard the result I was with a friend who, like me, had been an anti for all sorts of practical reasons. Yet both of us reacted with jubilation. It wasn't just that we were thrilled at putting one over on the ghastly President Chirac. It was more a reminder that London is a great city.

And then came the horrors of Thursday. Now it was no surprise to me that stoicism and decency came rapidly to the fore. I've lived in London since 1973, the year that Gerry Kelly, now Sinn Fein's Justice spokesman, kicked off the IRA campaign with a bomb at the Old Bailey that killed one person and injured 230.

During the ensuing years, as 46 people were killed in London and hundreds were mutilated, I marvelled constantly at the calm and forbearance of the locals. After every new atrocity, there would be an unspoken communal decision to shut up and get on with life. And despite my strong Irish accent, I was never subject to anger or recrimination.

But then people whose parents or grandparents had survived the Blitz had a sense of perspective and took pride in demonstrating defiance and resilience. And inhabitants of a cosmopolitan city knew the difference between the Irish who were their friends and those who were their enemies.

Since the news of the bombs on Thursday, the usual suspects among the intelligentsia have been wringing their hands and predicting an outbreak of fear and anti-Muslim rage in London. Yet within a few hours, watching innumerable survivors talking of how lucky they had been, it was clear Londoners hadn't lost their sense of perspective.

The emergency services operated brilliantly, and unlike in Madrid or New York, people tried to be calm. Television and radio encouraged communal harmony by featuring Muslim leaders condemning the bombers. More to the point, the tabloids, which usually appeal to the worst instincts of their readers, quickly began to appeal to the best.

First there was defiance. Following the lead of Tony Blair, who promised that we would not be terrorised, 'Our spirit will never be broken', was the Sun headline on Friday. Its leader began with a rousing reminder of how Hitler and the mad bombers of the IRA had left London 'bloodied but unbowed' - the actual headline used by the Daily Mirror.

The Daily Mail leader promised that 'British courage will defeat terror' and the Daily Express insisted that we must not let the terrorists wreck the British way of life.

'Bastards', said the Daily Star simply, and the unspeakable Daily Sport promised that 'We will never let the cowards defeat us' - proving its determination to carry on as usual by having most of its front page devoted to a topless lovely.

It was spelled out again and again that, unlike the Spaniards, who caved into the Madrid bombers by pulling out of Iraq, we would not be giving in.

By Saturday, the determination to unite Londoners against the enemy had become the theme. Indeed the Star had the most telling front page.

'Missing - young, vibrant - every creed, every colour. The lost of London's bombing' was the message in the centre of 19 photographs of whites and blacks and Asians. The names showed that the victims reflected the status of London as the most cosmopolitan city in the world - among them Shahara Akther Islam, who featured on the front of The Sun along with Laura Webb: 'Two beautiful, decent women. One Christian. One Muslim. Both missing with dozens more. Pray for them all'.

The Mirror leader reflected the prevailing mood: 'Pride out of horror'. And the Express reached into the past to offer us Mary Robinson, aged 90, who was twice bombed out during the London Blitz, had just missed the fatal Number 30 bus on Thursday, but boarded her bus to the market as usual on Friday announcing that "no terrorist will ever stop me".

She epitomises the spirit Noel Coward immortalised during the war in London Pride, which included the line: "Ev'ry Blitz your resistance toughening".

In a Telegraph poll on Saturday, 90 per cent agreed that they took pride in the way ordinary Londoners responded to the bombings. Then, asked to address the reality that the bombers were probably Londoners, they told the awful truth: 74 per cent believed that though the majority of British Muslims were peaceful and law-abiding, there was a dangerous minority prepared to carry out or condone terrorism.

As it was up to decent Irish people in Britain to denounce the IRA, so it is up to British Muslims to take the lead in dealing with their own murderers. Up to now they have demonstrated too much ambivalence and cowardice. The irony is that - by killing so many Muslims - the Islamofascists may finally have inspired their own community to take them on.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards