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30 years ago tonight, the IRA tried to murder Margaret Thatcher

The Brighton bombing was “the most audacious attack on a British government” in nearly 400 years.

AT EXACTLY 2.54 am on Friday, 12 October 1984, a 20-30 lb gelignite bomb exploded under the bath in room 629 of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, on the south coast of England.

It had been placed there in the middle of September by a hotel guest going by the name of Roy Walsh, who used the recording device from a VCR to set the timer for 24 days later.

Roy Walsh’s real name was Patrick Magee, a Belfast man in his 30s who had grown up in Norwich, before returning to Northern Ireland and becoming an explosives officer in the IRA.

The target of the bomb attack was no less than British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet, who were staying in the Grand Hotel for the annual Conservative party conference.

‘The most audacious attack on a British government since the Gunpowder Plot’

Brighton bomb The exterior of the Grand Hotel Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

At the time of the explosion, most guests were asleep in bed, but some were still in the hotel bar, celebrating what had been up to then a successful four-day conference.

Thatcher was in her suite with her private secretary, having just finished preparing her keynote conference speech, and in the middle of signing one last official paper before joining her husband Denis in the bedroom next door.

The bomb tore through the upper floors of the Grand Hotel, leaving a gaping hole in the facade, and sending rubble, masonry and glass flying.

A chimney at the top of the building broke off and swung downwards, hitting the front of the hotel just above the main entrance.

British Crime - Terrorism - IRA Mainland Bombing Campaign - Brighton - 1984 Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Among the dozens seriously injured was Norman Tebbit, an MP, Junior Minister and Conservative party favourite.

He and his wife Margaret spent hours trapped under rubble, before firemen finally rescued him, under the light of BBC cameras.

tebbit

Tebbit survived, but eventually cut short his political career to take care of his wife Margaret, who was left permanently disabled by the injuries she sustained that night.

Thatcher’s bathroom was destroyed, but she and her husband Denis were left unscathed.

In the end, however, five people were killed in the attack: Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry, party official Eric Taylor, Lady Jeanne Shattock (wife of a party official), Roberta Wakeham (wife of MP John Wakeham), and Lady Muriel Maclean, who was staying in Room 629.

Looking back 25 years later, eyewitness and Daily Telegraph writer David Hughes said:

It was the most audacious attack on a British government since the Gunpowder Plot.

It marked the end of an age of comparative innocence.

‘Life must go on as usual.’

thatcher

After changing her clothes, Thatcher was brought to the local police station.

Senior police and security officials pleaded with her to leave Brighton as soon as possible, and return to London and the relatively-fortified surroundings of 10 Downing Street.

She refused, and when greeted by reporters outside the station, in the early hours of the morning, delivered a defiant message: “Life must go on, as usual.”

One security official, fearing a follow-up gun attack, tried to cut short the interview with the BBC’s John Cole, but Thatcher insisted on hammering home her message: “The conference will go on as usual.”

The final day of the conference began, as scheduled, at 8am, just a few hours after the attempt on Thatcher’s life, and while some party officials remained unaccounted for.

Later on Friday morning, the IRA released an official claim of responsibility, adding a chilling threat:

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 war.

The Legacy

Ireland Obit FitzGerald Source: AP/Press Association Images

Declassified state papers, released just this year, revealed that the events of 12 October, 1984, almost entirely derailed the peace process in the 1980s.

At the time, Thatcher wrote:

The events of Thursday night at Brighton mean that we must go very slow on these talks, if not stop them.It would look as if we were bombed into making concessions to the Republic.

Despite that, however, negotiations continued, and she joined then-Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald in signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement, just over a year later.

‘A particularly hot corner of hell’ 

pat magee File photo of Patrick Magee in the early 1980s

Investigators traced the source of the bomb to Room 629, and began looking through the names of everyone who had stayed in the Grand Hotel in the month before the attack.

They ruled out 800 people from 50 countries, and eventually honed in on Patrick Magee, after a fingerprint on the room card matched one taken years previously after a run-in with the law in Norwich, according to the BBC.

Police bided their time, and eventually traced Magee to a safe-house in Glasgow, the following summer.

He was arrested along with the rest of an IRA unit, including future Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson, who was then 23 years of age.

25th Anniversary of the Grand Hotel bombing Convicted IRA bomber Patrick Magee, 25 years on. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

At Magee’s trial a year later, Justice Boreham branded him “a man of exceptional cruelty and inhumanity” and gave him eight life sentences.

Magee was released in 1999, however, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, having completed a PhD on fictional portrayals of republicans, while behind bars.

As recently as this week, Sir Norman Tebbit – whose wife remains partially paralysed from the attack – refused, in no uncertain terms, to express forgiveness for Magee.

“He has never repented for his sins and without repentance there can be no forgiveness,” the 83-year-old told the BBC on Wednesday.

As for the others – those who planned it commissioned it paid little Magee his few shillings – they of course have never confessed. They have never given a word of sorrow.One can hope that there’s a particularly hot corner of hell reserved for them and they can repent in their own time there.

One person who has very publically forgiven Magee, however, is Jo Berry – the daughter of Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry.

She is the founder of Building Bridges for Peace, and now travels throughout the world with her firm friend – Pat Magee, the man who murdered her father.

Here they are, discussing the moment they first met:

Source: Conscious 2/YouTube

The Grand Hotel was reopened in 1986 at a triumphant ceremony attended by Margaret Thatcher.

It was sold on to new owners earlier this year, and is still an operating hotel.

Read: Thatcher considered redrawing NI border to move Catholic areas south>

‘Mixed feelings’ about the end of Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team>

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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