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The 1984 Brighton Bombing: The Near Death Of Margaret Thatcher And Her Cabinet

Updated: 5 days ago

"Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always"
- IRA statement to Margaret Thatcher.

On the 12th of October 1984, the Provisional Irish Republican Army executed a brazen attempt to eliminate key figures of the British government staying at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. For three days Patrick Magee did not leave his room as he worked on the delicate task of assembling and installing a huge bomb, made with commercial gelignite and fitted with a long delay timer ready to go off in 24 days, six hours and 36 minutes, the last day of the Tory conference when Mrs Thatcher was to address the party faithful.

The eventual explosion resulted in the loss of five lives, including that of Conservative MP and Deputy Chief Whip Sir Anthony Berry, with an additional 31 individuals sustaining injuries. Thatcher narrowly evaded the the explosion, but this was the first time that such an audacious act of terrorism had been made on mainland Britain.

The detonation occurred around 2:54 am (BST) on the 12th of October, resulting in a destructive blast that brought down a hefty five-ton chimney stack, crashing through multiple floors down into the basement, thereby rending a substantial gap in the façade of the venerable Victorian hotel. Remarkably, the sturdy construction of the hotel likely averted further loss of life, as remarked by the firefighters on scene. At the time of the explosion, Prime Minister Thatcher remained awake in her room, engrossed in refining her closing speech for the conference in the morning.within the confines of her suite. Although the blast wrought havoc upon the bathroom of her quarters, the adjoining sitting room and bedroom remained relatively unscathed, albeit with shattered windows. Thatcher, along with her spouse Denis, emerged unharmed. Swiftly changing clothes, she, accompanied by her husband and her confidante and aide Cynthia Crawford, navigated through the debris to be escorted to a nearby Brighton police station.

Denis Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher and Cynthia Crawford being rushed to the Police station shortly after the explosion

By approximately 4:00 am, as Thatcher departed from the police station, she offered an impromptu interview to the BBC's John Cole, affirming the resolute continuation of the conference proceedings, thanks in part to the efforts of Alistair McAlpine, Marks & Spencer who graciously opened their doors early at 8:00 am, facilitating the acquisition of replacement clothes for those affected by the bombing. Subsequently, Thatcher proceeded from the conference venue to extend her personal visit to the wounded at the Royal Sussex County Hospital.

As for the casualties, the bombing claimed the lives of five individuals, none of whom held ministerial positions. Notably among the deceased were Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry, serving as Deputy Chief Whip, as well as Eric Taylor, Lady Shattock (Jeanne, spouse of Sir Gordon Shattock, Western Area Chairman of the Conservative Party), Lady Maclean (Muriel, wife of Sir Donald Maclean, President of the Scottish Conservatives), and Roberta Wakeham (wife of Chief Whip John Wakeham).

While Donald Maclean narrowly survived the explosion despite being present in the room of detonation, several others suffered permanent disabilities. Among them were Walter Clegg, whose room directly above the blast site left him permanently disabled, and Margaret Tebbit, who endured a harrowing four-floor fall, subsequently undergoing a prolonged period of treatment to regain partial use of her hands, yet remained wheelchair-bound for the remainder of her days. The toll of injured individuals reached thirty-four, with Norman Tebbit, less severely injured than his wife Margaret, purportedly responding to hospital inquiries about allergies with a wry acknowledgment, admitting he was "allergic to bombs."

The IRA claimed accountability the next day, articulating an intent to persist in their efforts:

"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."

In response, Thatcher commenced the following morning's conference session at the appointed hour of 9:30 am, albeit with modifications to her address. She largely omitted planned critiques of the Labour Party, characterising the bombing as "an attempt to cripple Her Majesty's democratically elected Government":

"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."

Subsequently, her public approval surged nearly to the levels observed during the Falklands War. Addressing her constituents the Saturday after the bombing, Thatcher remarked:

"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."
Debris in Prime Minister's Margaret Thatcher's Napoleon suite bathroom

After pinpointing the location of the to the bathroom of Room 629, investigators initiated a meticulous pursuit of all individuals who had occupied the room. This investigative trail eventually led them to "Roy Walsh," an alias employed by IRA operative Patrick Magee. Magee remained under surveillance for an extended period by MI5 and special branch personnel until his eventual apprehension at an IRA safe house in Glasgow. Despite enduring days of intense interrogation, Magee maintained silence, but his incriminating fingerprint discovered on a registration card salvaged from the hotel debris proved decisive in securing his conviction. On the 24th of June 1985, Magee was apprehended alongside other members of an IRA cell actively planning subsequent bombings in England. Many years later, in August 2000, Magee admitted to The Guardian his involvement in the bombing, although he contested the assertion that his fingerprint had been left on the registration card, saying "If that was my fingerprint I did not put it there"

In September 1985, at the age of 35, Magee was convicted of planting and detonating the bomb, as well as being responsible for five counts of murder. He was handed down eight life sentences, seven of which were linked to the Brighton bombing, with the eighth related to another bomb plot. Justice Sir Leslie Boreham recommended a minimum term of 35 years for Magee, branding him as "a man of extraordinary cruelty and inhumanity." Subsequently, Home Secretary Michael Howard extended this to a "whole life" term. Nevertheless, Magee was released in 1999 under the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, having served 14 years (inclusive of time spent awaiting sentencing). A spokesperson for the British Government expressed strong disapproval of his release, stating that it was difficult to accept. Despite an appeal by then Home Secretary Jack Straw to prevent it, the Northern Ireland High Court dismissed the appeal.

In 2000, Magee discussed the bombing during an interview with The Sunday Business Post. Speaking to interviewer Tom McGurk, he criticised the British government's strategy of portraying the IRA as mere criminals while attempting to confine the Troubles to Northern Ireland.

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.

Of those killed in the bombing, Magee said: "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?



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