The Brighton Bombing
- 12th October 1984 -
The early 1980s were a fascinating, concerning and divisive time in British politics. Margaret Thatcher had been in power since 1979 and had enjoyed popular success in the Falkland’s Conflict in 1982. After calling an election in 1983 she defeated Labour’s Michael Foot to win the most decisive election victory since 1945, when Labour hammered the Conservatives. Her party had a huge, 144 seat, majority in the House of Commons. However, the Miner’s Strike on 1984/5, led by the National Union of Mineworkers, with Arthur Scargill at its head, polarised the country and led to a political fight between the Unions and the Government. On of Margaret Thatcher’s predecessors, Edward Heath, was brought down by the unions in 1974, and the same was a pssoibility this time.
This was also a period of continued conflict between the UK and the IRA. In 1979 Airey Neave, the MP for Abingdon, was killed by a bomb in his car as he left the Palace of Westminster. July 1982 saw the Hyde Park and Regents Park bombings, killing 11 British soldiers and injuring many civilians. In December 1983 three policemen were killed by a car bomb outside the department store, Harrods. This was in addition to the many bombings occurring in Ireland. The conflict, however, was being brought to the England.
The political temperature of Irish/British relations had also been heightened by the hunger strikes of 1980/81 that resulted in the death of 10 men. They had been campaigning about the loss of privilege of special category status enjoyed by paramilitary prisoners. One of these, Bobby Sands, was elected as MP of Fermanagh and South Tyrone during the strikes after Frank Maguire, the incumbent, died of a heart attack. Standing as an ‘Anti H-Block’ party candidate he defeated the Ulster Unionist candidate by under 1000 votes. Sands died less than a month later, having never taken his seat in Parliament. His funeral was attended by over 100,000 people and boosted numbers for the IRA. It also prompted the Government to pass the Representation of the People Act, 1981, that prevented prisoners, serving more than one year, from standing in British elections.
Thus the scene in 1984 was one of high tension and division. The death of Sands directly led to the events in Brighton in October 1984 – as described by the bomber himself, Patrick Magee. The IRA wanted to strike back at the heart of government and they chose the Conservative Party conference in Brighton as their target. Magee, an experienced member of the IRA, was given the responsibility of planting the explosive in the Grand Hotel, Brighton. He booked in with a female companion as Roy Walsh on 14th September 1984, 3 weeks before the conference. He stayed in room 629, above the main VIP suites which the hierarchy would stay in during the course of the conference. Using 20lbs of gelignite, wrapped in Clingfilm to avoid the smell being apparent to sniffer dogs, he hid the bomb behind the bath panel in his room and set the timer to detonate the device at 02:53 on 12th October, the last night of the conference. He used, as a timer, the mechanism from a video recorder.
That night Margaret Thatcher was awake long after midnight working on her speech with her Private Parliamentary Secretary in the drawing room of the suite below room 629. Her husband, Denis, had gone to bed. At 02:53 the bomb ripped through the floors of the hotel, causing the front to be blown away and a chimney stack to collapse and crash through the centre of the building missing the Thatchers by inches. The bathroom, which she had been in moments before, was destroyed but both her and Denis were unharmed. Many were trapped by the falling debris and five were killed. Although no Government ministers lost their lives Sir Anthony Berry, MP for Enfield Southgate and a government whip, was killed as was Roberta Wakeham, wife of the Parliamentary Treasury Secretary, John Wakeham. Norman Tebbit, the Trade and Industry Secretary, was injured and was saved only by a falling mattress. His wife, Margaret, was more severely injured and left permanently paralysed.
Margaret Thatcher and her husband were rushed out of the back door of the hotel and taken to Brighton Police Station for safety. In the morning, against police advice, she walked to the conference hall to deliver her speech. As she did so the IRA released a statement:
“Today we were unlucky. But remember we only have to be lucky once; you will have to be lucky always.”
Thatcher delivered her address. After a moment’s silence she said:
“The fact that we are gathered here now – shocked, but composed, and determined – is a sign that not only this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”
Three months after the bombing police worked out where the bomb had been planted. After checking out all the people who had used room 629 they found, on the registration card used by Roy Walsh, the fingerprints of the known IRA member, Patrick Magee. He was arrested on 24th June 1985 in Glasgow with other members of the IRA plotting further attacks.
Magee stated that, ‘As long as the war was kept in that context, they could sustain the years of attrition. But in the early 1980s we succeeded in destroying both strategies. The hunger strike destroyed the notion of criminalisation and the Brighton bombing destroyed the notion of containment. After Brighton, anything was possible and the British for the first time began to look very differently at us; even the IRA itself, I believe, began to fully accept the priority of the campaign in England.’
He was found guilty of murder and given 8 life sentences with the judge recommending he serve a minimum of 35 years. 4 other members of the IRA were also jailed. Later, Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard, ordered that Magee serve a ‘Whole Life Term’ meaning he would never be released. The hotel was re-opened on August 28th 1986 and the ceremony was attended by both Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit.
In 1999, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, about how Northern Ireland should be governed, many prisoners were released early, including Patrick Magee. The Labour Home Secretary, Jack Straw, tried to stall this release but was turned down by the Northern Ireland High Court.
A year later, in 2000, Magee met Jo Berry, daughter of Sir Anthony, who had been killed at Brighton. Jo had dedicated her life to conflict resolution and both her and Magee are involved in a considerable amount of work for peace. The two often travel and work together under the charity ‘Building Bridges for Peace’. Magee commented: “I am still trying to come to terms with the fact that somebody who I’ve hurt – I’ve killed her father – is still prepared to come and listen to me and to talk to me and to respect my point of view.’
On their website, http://www.buildingbridgesforpeace.org is a statement from Magee and Jo Berry about the what they have achieved and the journey they have found together.