THE MURDER of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich has sent shockwaves across all communities in recent days.
The vast majority of people share a sense of horror: not only for an attack on one of our armed forces officers, but also the calculated attack on our way of life.
Having spent my high school days in Middleton, and now living just up the road, I know that the pain and loss felt by that community is stark and something we’re all feeling as we try to come to terms with such a senseless act.
Less than six years ago the so-called 7/7 London bombings on public transport brought home to us how vulnerable we actually are to attacks from extremists. This latest chilling incident will do nothing to reduce those fears or to reassure people that we live in a truly cohesive community,
Soon after news broke of the Woolwich attack other extremists also quickly jumped on the hatred bandwagon. This time it was the EDL and other groups who, perhaps without realising it, were simply adding fuel to an already volatile and heated situation.
We have to accept that in a fair and free society some people will at times abuse that freedom.
All too often we see situations where that fairness is seen as a sign of weakness that those with extremist and hate-filled agendas can exploit to mount an attack – and that can come in many guises.
The killing of an innocent man walking down the streets of Woolwich was, clearly, the worst of the worst. Only his family can truly understand the irreplaceable loss.
But what concerns me more than when any tiny minority uses religion, faith, culture, events and a sense of unfairness or injustice as a reason for hate, is when normal everyday people stand on the sidelines and say nothing – or even worse join in without considering the serious implications of what they are doing.
I saw this first hand on Social Media at the end of last week when some people were spreading total lies about there being “a riot in Oldham” and claiming that Muslims here had taken to our streets to celebrate the killing of drummer Lee Rigby.
None of this was true.
It was bad enough that some spineless individuals were using the cover that Social Media offers to lie and incite others, but what made it worse was how many people allowed themselves to be duped into believing it and, seemingly without thinking about the potential consequences, simply pressed ‘retweet’.
Twitter is only a modern means of communication and arguably those people were no more or less irresponsible than someone who repeats the rumour to the next person they see.
But the immediacy and power of Twitter and Facebook – as shown in the so-called ‘Blackberry’ riots in the UK in 2011 – has the potential to cause great harm to our towns, cities and communities. A whisper on there can acquire a frightening momentum in just minutes, regardless of whether it is true or not, and there’s little in place other than our own self-restraint to stop the potential spread of ‘viral violence’.
Oldham was spared any trouble in 2011, but we did face our own riots back in 2001 and – surely – none of us EVER want to return to those dark days?
We do not want our town being lazily slated in the national press with the end result that investors and jobs are scared off. And be in no doubt, in this economic climate, that our much-needed and long-awaited regeneration could be the ultimate price we all pay if something goes wrong.
I believe there is a responsibility for each and every one of us – regardless of our background or individual sense of belonging – to see beyond race, religion and cultural ties and recognise that we are Oldhamers.
It doesn’t matter if you’re white, Asian, black or anything else for me.
If we live here we all have a responsibility to stand up for what is right for the wider community, not just our own little part of it.
Simplistic talk of “them and us” won’t help – nor will trying to justify one extremist action because of another. Remember, extremists in any guise rely on the majority being indifferent or even passively sympathetic for them to be able to grow the seeds of hate.
I am asking people to please just pause and think before repeating and retweeting something you cannot verify to be true. Please refer to official sources of information first, like ourselves and Greater Manchester Police, before passing something on as ‘the truth’.
To end on a more positive note I wanted to highlight that the last few days have seen some local events and activities that everyone in our Borough can rightly be proud of.
Last weekend in particular was a great time to be here with our world famous Saddleworth and Lees band contests undeterred by the weather on Whit Friday, and Festival Oldham drawing families onto the streets of Oldham Town Centre.
Both events give visitors a very positive impression of our Borough and they bring in people who may never have considered coming here at all.
We are currently compiling a huge list of events running throughout the year in every part of our Borough and are going to be working with partners to actively promote these to a much wider audience. Not only will this be a great boost to the event organisers, but it will also help us to challenge many preconceived ideas about Oldham.
I cannot close this week without passing comment on the accession of Councillor John Hudson to become the new Mayor of Oldham.
The honour, bestowed at our Annual Council meeting, was cheered by many well-wishers and we heard some very entertaining speeches about the role John has played in local politics over several decades.
Two things are guaranteed in the next 12 months from our new Mayor.
Firstly, I believe he will be a good ambassador who will work across party political boundaries to promote all that we are doing to regenerate our Borough and create jobs.
Secondly, John’s trademark quick wit and unique style could see our viewing figures for Full Council meetings increase twofold on the Internet. I just hope we’ve got the IT capacity to cope!
Thanks for listening,