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The Bombing of The Grand Hotel, Brighton

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 12 Oct

12th October 1984  -  Not since the 5th November 1605 and the Gunpowder Plot was there such an attempt to blow up the entire Government. The main difference between the two being that the Brighton plot had a greater chance of success. Back in 1605 the Government was aware of what was going on for weeks. Many would argue that the establishment were complicit in the earlier attempt in order to catch the Catholic plotters at the last minute and lead the King, James I, to come down heavily on them. Luck played a greater part in diminishing the effect of the later attempt and could very easily have killed many more than the 5 lives it did claim.


The bombing took place during the Conservative Party conference. All the top brass were staying in the Grand Hotel, including the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and the entire cabinet. Four weeks earlier a bomb had been placed in the bathroom of room 629 by an IRA cell that included Patrick Magee. 20 pounds of gelignite were packed under a bath covered in cling film to avoid the sniffer dogs detecting it in the weeks leading up to the conference. The room had been hired out to Roy Walsh, a pseudonym used by Patrick Magee.


The room that week was being used by the President of the Scottish Conservatives, Donald Maclean, and his wife, Muriel. She was one of the five fatalities. At 2.54am it was detonated. Margaret Thatcher was still at work on her speech, which was due to be delivered to conference the next day. She was in a suite on a different floor to 629 and this almost certainly saved her life. The bathroom of her suite was destroyed but the sitting room and bedroom were untouched.


Jim Naughtie, at the time the Chief Political correspondent for the Scotsman, said that the hotel “Was crumpled up like a rock fall on a mountainside”. Both Thatcher, and her husband Denis, were evacuated by the emergency services and taken to Brighton Police station for safety. On leaving the police station she gave an impromptu press conference where she said, “Life must go on as usual. The conference will go as usual.” At 9.30am that morning the conference re-opened. Marks and Spencer’s opened especially early at 8am so that delegates caught up in the explosion were able to re-clothe themselves.


Margaret Thatcher did address the conference later that morning although she changed her speech somewhat and dropped most of her attacks on the Labour Party. She said, “This attack has failed. All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.” This moment has been described in some quarters as her Churchill moment – showing composure and fortitude under intense pressure. Later that day the IRA issued a statement claiming responsibility. “Mrs Thatcher will now realise that Britain cannot occupy our country and torture our prisoners and shoot our people in their own streets… Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once.”


On 25th June 1985 Patrick Magee was arrested in Glasgow. He had been tracked down by a fingerprint on the registration card he had used 4 weeks before the bombing. Although admitting that he was part of the IRA cell involved he has always maintained that this piece of evidence was faked. He was given 8 life sentences for his part in the attempt and kept in the Maze Prison, Belfast. However as part of the Good Friday Agreement he was released in 1999, having served 14 years in prison. Jack Straw, the Labour Home Secretary at the time, tried to block his release but the High Court of Northern Ireland turned this down. 4 other members of the cell were also released. Patrick Magee said on leaving prison that, “I deeply regret that anybody had to lose their lives, but at the time did the Tory ruling class expect to remain immune from what their frontline troops were doing to us?”



One of the other people killed that day was Sir Anthony Berry, MP for Enfield Southgate and a government whip. In 2014, on the 30th anniversary of the event, his daughter, Jo, attended a showing of a documentary called “Beyond Right and Wrong” in Hove. This followed the story of Jo and her reconciliatory journey with Patrick Magee. She invited Magee to come as well, returning to Brighton for the fist time. They had become good friends. “For me inviting Pat to be here is to show a living example of reconciliation and the power of empathy. Some people will be upset but I think that for peace sometimes you have to take these risks.” Magee declined to speak at the event but Ms Berry believed that he had changed considerably. “When he planted the bomb he wasn’t seeing human beings. It was a strategy and now he sees human beings – and wonderful human beings. It has been about him getting his humanity back. He regards me as a friend. He knows that my dad was a wonderful human being and he knows that some of those qualities I have come from my father and that weighs heavily on him.”


Another injured that day was a member of the cabinet - the secretary for Trade and Industry, one of the leading lights of Thatcher’s conservatism, Norman Tebbit. His wife, Margaret, was left permanently disabled. The picture of Tebbit being lifted out of the rubble having fallen through the building was one of the lasting images of the time. In the 1987 election he gave up his seat in the Commons to care full time for his wife. He has been unable to forgive those who bombed the building. On the 30th anniversary he said, “I am often asked if I can find it in my heart to forgive the creature, Patrick Magee. That is not possible, for Magee has never repented.”


The bombing shocked the nation and the repercussions were to be felt for many years. For some it showed Thatcher as the ‘Iron Lady’ and evoked the spirit of Churchill. For others it showed that peace could only be gained by talking to the enemy however unpalatable that may seem and brought much closer to home the conflict that had been going on for years. It was certainly an audacious plot that came seriously close to killing one of the leading lights of 1980s world politics before she had come close to completing her programme of reforms. Britain, Europe and possibly the world would be a very different place now if it had succeeded.

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