Orcadian Column 23rd May 2017

Targeting the innocent is a hallmark of the cowards who orchestrate or carry out terrorist atrocities. Of course, it takes a special kind of depraved cowardice to make children and young people the focus of such attacks.

Yet the unspeakable horror visited upon Manchester Arena this week, in a sickening echo of what happened at the Bataclan in Paris two years ago, was just such an act of cowardice. While details are still emerging of what precisely happened, and the extent of the resultant slaughter, it is already abundantly obvious that the target was chosen so as to maximise the number of children and young people killed, maimed and traumatised.

At Holyrood on Tuesday afternoon, in act that has become all too familiar of late, MSPs gathered once again to hear the First Minister and other party leaders express parliament’s sympathy for and solidarity with those caught up in this latest tragedy. All spoke movingly, but Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale touched a particular chord when describing the likely scene amongst Ariana Grande fans just moments before the attack: “They would have been dressed in pink; in sparkles, bunny ears, with grins on their faces. The very picture of innocence. Unable to contain their excitement”. The contrast with what then followed could not be more stark or galling.

Party leaders also had words of thanks and admiration for members of the public who responded to the attack. Yet again, the individual acts of human kindness and bravery shone through amidst the unfolding horror. Locals opening up their homes to strangers; hotels, restaurants and cafes offering food and shelter to those in need; and taxi drivers turning off their meters and ferrying people across the city and beyond. A show of decency, defiance and unity from a proud and vibrant city, refusing to be cowed.

Tributes too were paid to the emergency services, who again showed their professionalism in the most trying of circumstances. As it happens, the head of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, Alasdair Hay was already due to appear before the Justice Committee on Tuesday morning and he took the opportunity to praise his colleagues and those in the other blue light services for their actions.

Mr Hay went on to field questions from the Committee on a range of topics, including ones from myself on how retained fire stations in island communities are being supported. He reiterated SFRS’ plans to upgrade training facilities at Kirkwall airport later this year, allowing training for crew members to take place in Orkney and reducing the need for time-consuming trips south. Mr Hay also drew attention to work to speed up the processing of applications and efforts to encourage more young people in Orkney to consider taking up roles in the local fire service.

Important as this and the other issues raised by the Committee undoubtedly are, our exchanges were understandably overshadowed by what was happening 200 miles to the south in Manchester.

No surprise either was the decision taken by each of the political parties to suspend temporarily all campaign activity ahead of the forthcoming General Election. How long this will last is not yet clear, but it is the right decision for now.

Ultimately, though, the only way of demonstrating the futility of barbaric acts such as that perpetrated at the Manchester Arena on Monday night is to carry on going to concerts; to carry on holding elections; and to carry on refusing to allow the seeds of hatred, fear and division to be sown within our community.

Manchester is a wonderfully diverse city, all parts of which have shown their resilience over recent days. Mancunians have made clear since the attack that they stand together, irrespective of faith, race or background. That is a powerful message of hope and one that is desperately needed in face of such inexplicable evil.

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