"We suffered a tragedy not one of us could have thought would happen in our country. And we picked ourselves up and sorted ourselves out as all good British people do, and I thought, let us stand together for we are British! They were trying to destroy the fundamental freedom that is the birth-right of every British citizen, freedom, justice and democracy"
- Margaret Thatcher
"Mrs Thatcher will now realise that Britain cannot occupy our country and torture our prisoners and shoot our people in their own streets and get away with it. Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no more war."
- Provisional IRA statement
On October 12, 1984, the Provisional Irish Republican Army detonated a bomb in the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England. The explosion was timed to coincide with the presence of many prominent British politicians attending the Conservative Party conference, including the Prime Minister of The United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher. It was almost the grandest coup and the greatest disaster in British political history; instead it sent Thatcher's popularity soaring, as the British public responded to her stoicism and determination in the face of the assassination attempt. On the side of the IRA and its supporters, the attack was seen as a devastating warning about the capabilities of the IRA to inflict damage on the British State, and a direct retaliation for perceived cruelty and intransigence by Thatcher. On the British side, the bombings were viewed as an atrocity and a direct attack on the British people, and popular feeling against the Irish Republicans rose to an all-time high.
Patrick Joseph Magee, the Brighton Bomber, was born in Belfast in 1951, moved to Norwich at the age of two and lived there until his return to Belfast at the age of 18. Little information is available on what kind of person he was at that age, but it's known that he very quickly joined the Provisional IRA in Belfast, and that by the 1970s he was the IRA's Chief Explosives Officer. It has also been stated that Magee received training in Libyan terrorist camps. Described by his trial judge as "a man of exceptional cruelty and inhumanity", Magee was certainly a Believer, and was entirely committed to the ideology of the IRA, which was that of militant, violent resistance to the occupation of Northern Ireland by Britain, including terrorist attacks on "legitimate" targets, which seemed to range from members of the British Government and armed forces, to innocent seaside holidaymakers. Already having served two years in prison from 1973 to 1975 for being an IRA member, he traveled back to England in 1978 and took part in the planting of 16 bombs in various cities around the country. If the IRA ever needed someone to carry out a major explosives operation, he was the perfect candidate. He has said, much later and since his release:
"I believe if you look back objectively at the root causes of this conflict you will see that all avenues were closed to us, that our only recourse was to engage in a violent conflict."
The Hunger Strikes
The background to the Brighton Bombing can be said to be the entire history of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, about which further reading can be found in links given at the end of this article. However, the most immediate and relevant events leading up to the bombing are definitely those surrounding the 1981 Hunger Strike by IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland. This strike, which made headlines around the world, was itself the culmination of events spanning five years, with their origins in an alteration of the status granted to paramilitary prisoners by the British Government. These prisoners had previously had Special Category Status as a recognition of the fact that they regarded themselves as prisoners of war as opposed to terrorists. This was not a distinction that had ever sat comfortably with the British Government, and it had only been awarded as part of a negotiation package for truce talks. Imprisoned IRA members were treated as POWs under the Geneva Convention, meaning that among other things they did not have to wear prison uniforms or do prison work, they were contained along with others of their paramilitary order, and they got extra visits and packets of food.
In 1976, Special Category Status was withdrawn, on the recommendation of the Gardiner Committee, and all hell broke loose, predictably, among the IRA prisoners. There were riots, hunger strikes, dirty protests, blanket protests (in which the prisoners would refuse to wear their uniforms, wrapping themselves instead in their prison blankets) and several prison staff were killed. These protests reached their apotheosis with the hunger strikes of 1981. This protest, led by Bobby Sands, turned into a public battle of wills between the IRA and Margaret Thatcher, as more and more publicity was given to the protesters. Bobby Sands was elected to the British House of Commons during this time, when there was a by-election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone due to the death of the previous MP, and this vastly raised the profile of the hunger strike. The more the pressure built, the more rigid Margaret Thatcher's stance became:
"We are not prepared to consider special category status for certain groups of people serving sentences for crime. Crime is crime is crime, it is not political."
Sands died on the 5th of May after 66 days of hunger strike, having become a celebrity and been spoken to by a great many eminent people, including the personal envoy of Pope John Paul II. The Thatcher administration's unwavering stance and harsh language had the effect of further polarizing public opinion regarding the conflict. The British Press had nothing but praise for Thatcher's determination, and regarded the eventual breaking of the hunger strike after 10 deaths as a triumph. However, among Irish Republicans, and even fairly neutral Irish people and many international observers, the handling of the hunger strike was extensively criticized, and Thatcher became one of the greatest hate figures to adorn Irish discourse since Oliver Cromwell.
"Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims"
- Margaret Thatcher
It is against this background of enormous popular feeling that the Brighton Bombings must be understood. 100,000 people attended the funeral of Bobby Sands, and his visage became an iconic image in graffiti in nationalist areas of the Northern cities. The IRA had never before considered a serious attempt on the life of the British Prime Minister, probably due to the fact that such an attempt, even if successful, would probably be counterproductive, galvanizing popular support for the British government and inducing an inevitable series of crackdowns and punitive measures. In this case, however, the IRA leadership decided that Thatcher simply had to be killed. Whether this was a practical decision (her dogged determination not to concede to them in any way was an obstacle that had to be removed) or an emotional one (the intensity with which she was loathed among Republicans simply cannot be overestimated) is a matter of opinion and debate. Whatever the thoughts that went through the minds of the IRA leadership who ordered the assassination, one thing is certain: Patrick Magee embraced it enthusiastically, and although in subsequent years he has expressed remorse and regret about the victims of the bombing, he has never once said or implied that he thinks the attempted murder of Thatcher was anything other than completely morally justified.
Three weeks before the Conservative Party Conference was scheduled, Patrick Magee checked into room 629 of the Brighton Grand Hotel under the name of Roy Walsh and using a false address. In the wall of the bathroom he left a 30 pound Semtex bomb on a long timer. It seems possible that he had foreknowledge about the suite most likely to be occupied by the Prime Minister during the conference, as although his room was on the 6th floor and hers on the first, hers was almost directly below and therefore in the line of any falling debris. However, it is more likely that this was mere coincidence, and that if Magee really had known her exact room in advance he would have tried to get his bomb closer.
At the request of the Conservative Party, security for the conference was low-key - only two rooms of the hotel were searched for suspect devices, one of them Thatcher's own suite. This seems unbelievable considering the volatile political climate and the security measures that we now regard as routine - possibly, up to that point, no one had considered that the IRA had the will or the ability to plan a strike of this nature.
At 2:54 a.m. on October 12, the bomb exploded - sources differ on whether it consisted of one or two explosions. Thatcher was awake (she was famous for sleeping very little, and was working on her closing speech, in which she was going to make a strong attack on the Labour Party). The explosion completely destroyed almost half of the hotel's facade, blowing curtains and bedclothes across the street where they adorned cars and lamp-posts when the police arrived. The occupants of room 629 at the time were Sir Donald Maclean and his wife Muriel - both were severely injured, and Muriel later died in hospital. The explosion demolished one of the hotel's chimneys, which plunged through six floors, killing four more politicians in the rooms underneath. Margaret Thatcher's bathroom was completely destroyed, and she had a very narrow escape - she said afterward that she had been in there only two minutes before the blast.
Dozens of people were injured, including Trade Secretary Norman Tebbit and his wife Margaret, who were buried under tons of fallen masonry and had to be dug out by the emergency services. Margaret Tebbit's spine was broken and she was left permanently disabled, as were several others. Norman Tebbit's rescue was broadcast on nationwide breakfast television, and there was an outpouring of sympathy for the obvious pain he went through and the plight of his wife, who has needed full-time care ever since. The other deaths were Sir Anthony Berry, MP for Enfield Southgate; Roberta Wakeham, wife of the Tory Chief Whip, Lord Wakeham; Eric Taylor, the Conservative North West Area Chairman, and Jeanne Shattock, the Western Area Chairman's wife. The intention of the IRA seems to have been to collapse the entire hotel, killing the majority of people inside, including the entire British Cabinet - the fact that this did not happen to a fairly old building has been ascribed to skillful Victorian construction.
Margaret Thatcher's reaction to her near-death experience became legendary. Having greeted the arrival of the first police officers on the scene with the words "Good morning, thank you for coming", in a recent change of clothes and with her hair impeccable, she proceeded to insist that the conference would go ahead as usual. Marks and Spencer were persuaded to open early so that those politicians who had lost their clothes could buy new ones, and at 9:30am, with the rescue services still crawling all over the building and digging through the rubble, and with the total number of dead and injured still unknown, Thatcher stood in front of the Conservative Party conference and the world's now-watching media and expressed nothing but cool defiance and righteous anger.
"That is the scale of the outrage in which we have all shared, and the fact that we are gathered here now — shocked, but composed and determined — is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail."
Her popularity in Britain reached new levels, with people being reminded of Winston Churchill, and even her political opponents and detractors expressed admiration at her calmness and apparently unbreakable resolve. It must certainly be said about Thatcher that her iron will and stubbornness was the quality both most admired and most loathed by people depending on which edge of that will they happened to be experiencing at the time.
Although the IRA immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, it took a forensic analysis of the hotel to turn up the fact that out of 800 guests from 50 different countries, only one recent guest could not be accounted for - Roy Walsh. His hotel registration card was examined and a palm print was found which the police were able to match against their fingerprint records of Patrick Magee from when he had previously been arrested. Even so, they were unable to move immediately on their information - Magee had gone to ground, leaving the country for Holland, and the British police did not want to tip him off, preferring to let him feel comfortable and see if he would slip up. Their approach was justified, because it wasn't long before Magee returned and began plotting more bombings. He was arrested in Glasgow in June 1985 along other other members of an Active Service Unit (an IRA cell consisting of 5-8 members).
Magee admitted his involvement in the bombing, although he has since claimed that he was not alone, and that the fingerprint that led the authorities to track him down could not, in fact, have been his. He has always been unapologetic for the attacks themselves, feeling that they were fully justified acts of war, and when he was given eight life sentences by the trial judge (Mr Justice Boreham), seven for the Brighton Bombing (one for each of the five murders, one for planting the bomb and one for exploding it) and one for his involvement with the other 16 bombings or attempted bombings around the country, he gave a clenched-fist salute as he was led away to jail. Justice Boreham said during the sentencing:
"You intended to wipe out a large part of the government and you nearly did. I must be grateful that in recent years legislators have raised the maximum sentence from a mere 20 years to life imprisonment for explosive offences."
The attack generated enormous publicity and enormous controversy. The security lapses that allowed the IRA to come so close to wiping out the entire British Government in one attack, and the audacity of the IRA in attempting it, gave many people pause when considering how to proceed in the deadlocked situation in the North of Ireland, and made many begin to doubt Thatcher's policy of no concessions, no retreat, no compromise. On the other hand, the general admiration for her response to the attack made public questioning of her authority in the wake of the attack practically impossible.
On the surface, it seemed obvious that a hardening of the British position was inevitable, and that severe repercussions would follow. However, in reality, although various truces and agreements were undermined or broken, the following years saw a gradual trickle, which became a steady flow, of secret negotiations between the British Government and the IRA leadership, usually conducted through intermediaries. It cannot be categorically said that the Brighton Bombing hastened these negotiations, but neither did it stop them from happening.
The harsh reality, and an opinion expressed by Professor Richard English in an article cited below, may be that the bombing made no substantive difference to the political situation. Both the British Government and the IRA leadership acknowledged at different times the fact that total victory for either side was impossible, and that a negotiated solution, however it happened, was inevitable. The British Government could never abandon those of its people in Northern Ireland who wished to remain part of Britain, and neither would the IRA ever relinquish its struggle, since every new generation of young men and women born into that deadlocked and violent society would produce the radicals necessary to commit more terrorist acts. Professor English argues that even if Thatcher had been killed in Brighton, although the situation would initially have been made much worse, eventually negotiation for peace would have to take place; it was inevitable.
"The real significance of the 1984 Grand Hotel bombing lies not in its impact on the emergence of a peace process, but rather in its demonstration of the lethal capacity of the IRA to produce devastating political violence, and in the awful suffering that was inflicted on the actual victims of the bomb."
- Richard English, Professor of Politics at Queen's University, Belfast
The Redemption of Patrick Magee
As we all know, life very rarely means life, and after serving 14 years of his prison sentence, Patrick Magee was freed along with many other paramilitaries as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, tried to prevent this from happening, obtaining an interim order blocking it and seeking a judicial review to overturn the findings of the Sentences Review Commission that ordered their early release. He was unsuccessful, and Patrick Magee walked free in 1999, having used his time in prison to obtain a PhD in "Troubles Fiction" and to get married for the second time, to novelist Barbara Byer.
He has since expressed remorse for the victims of his bombings, while defending his actions as part of a military struggle, a fine line but one which he has consistently stuck to. He describes his victims as legitimate targets, while expressing regret at the loss of the life of "human beings". Taken all together, his statements exhibit the kind of confusion that results from war and subsequent peacetime, when the black and white morality of the struggle is revealed to be a grey area populated not just by "legitimate targets" but real people who in their own way had the best of intentions. Magee has met with some of his victims and their children, and returned to the site of the bombing in Brighton, to understandably mixed reactions from locals. Norman Tebbit and his wife have refused to talk to him. Jo Berry, the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry who was killed in the bombing, has met Magee for several hours at a time, on camera; the results of this, besides painful and cathartic conversations, have been Magee becoming involved in conciliation groups as a mediator of encounters between former "combatants" or terrorists and their victims.
"I wouldn't ask them to forgive, why should they? - just the understanding is all I could hope for."
- Patrick Magee
For anyone interested in the wider context of these events, there is a comprehensive article on The Troubles on Wikipedia, containing as much information as you probably ever wanted to know, and then some: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_troubles
1981 Hunger Strike: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1981_Irish_hunger_strike
Brighton Hotel Bombing (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brighton_bombing
Richard English on the aftermath of the bombing: http://www.channel4.com/history/microsites/H/history/a-b/bomb.html
The BBC article immediately following the blast: http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/october/12/newsid_2531000/2531583.stm
BBC article on Patrick Magee: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/301223.stm
Wikipedia on Magee: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Magee_(Irish_republican)
Magee's early release: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/301171.stm
Magee and Conciliation: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/entertainment/1704600.stm