Patrick Magee’s name will always be associated with the bombing of the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984. For many people in Britain today, he is still a hate figure. Yet Magee’s passage toward the IRA was an experience he shared with thousands of young men and women of his generation in the North of Ireland. In this extract from his new memoir, Where Grieving Begins: Building Bridges After the Brighton Bomb, Magee discusses how he came to join the IRA after spending his childhood years in Britain, his role in the Brighton bombing, and the unlikely friendship he developed after his release from prison with Joanna Berry, whose father was killed by the bomb he planted.
A British Childhood
Born in Belfast, Magee moved with his family to Norwich as a child. Here, he discusses a trip back to Belfast to visit relatives, his childhood and adolescence in England, and the impact on his thinking of the crisis in the North of Ireland.
Belfast was so different. This was the first time that I registered the politics of the place, noting with some amazement that policemen all carried holstered weapons and wore military-style kepis, like American cops on TV. Within days of my being back in England, Belfast was all over the news.
It was the run-up to the October 1964 general election. A firebrand preacher, Ian Paisley, had demanded that the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) remove an Irish tricolour from a Sinn Féin election office window. When nationalists protested its removal, the resulting riots led to over a hundred people being injured. Belfast made the news every night.
Another two years were to pass before Belfast again poured into my consciousness, making headlines when a loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), murdered a young Catholic barman on the Shankill Road. Then things seemed to slip the attention of the press. But my interest was stirred each time Belfast happened to grab a headline.
Dad also followed unfolding events. The evening news was sacred in our house, and he would give a running commentary. He particularly admired the Irish politician and writer Conor Cruise O’Brien. Dad was a staunch British Labour Party supporter, a trade unionist and, for a short while, a shop steward. He was always very calm and careful with words. Neighbors would call to the house to seek his advice, about benefits or how to solve this or that problem.
I must have been quite opinionated because when I was still thirteen, I made the provocative statement to Dad that I was a communist and was reading what I could get hold of about Marxism. All he said was, “You should read James Connolly,” the only real indication from him of any interest in Irish history. However, much later he revealed that as a child he had known Tom Williams, an IRA volunteer executed in 1942. Apparently, Tom used to be entrusted to take Dad when he was a boy to Mass.
My rebelliousness began before I turned fourteen. I always seemed to be in trouble: with my parents, with teachers, with anyone in authority. From this point in time, I was always in some scrape or another. I knocked about the streets instead of school. I grew my hair long. I spent a meager fortune on studs for a plastic biker jacket.
I fell in with a bunch of lads, older teenagers. We fancied ourselves a gang, eager for trouble. The gang was involved in petty crime, mostly shoplifting, vandalism. Eventually, after a row with Dad, I left home, I’ve no clue what over, and hid out with several of these new friends. This was shortly before I turned fifteen. Within a fortnight or so, I was lifted by the police for a break-in at a small butchers’ equipment business. Dad was summoned to the police station. I was charged and a date was set for a juvenile court appearance.
Eventually the court decided to put me on two years’ probation, the first year of which was to be spent at a probation hostel in London. St Vincent’s Probation Hostel in Brockley looked after about sixteen young offenders. The person in charge was a former British Army colonel who had served in India, a decent enough spud, although we had our disagreements. He was a staunch Conservative supporter and a Catholic. I felt the need to be frank about my atheism and socialist leanings.
St Vincent’s had an arrangement with a number of factories in South London willing to employ its delinquent charges. My first job was as a teaboy in a factory off the Old Kent Road. Many of the factory workforce were either Irish or West Indian. Signs could still be seen in B&B windows around South London saying: “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs.”
Returning to the hostel one evening, I saw two young Irish navvies pass a West Indian woman and her child, and turn and spit at the mother. I will never forget seeing the young boy, who couldn’t have been much more than six, look up at the men, then at his mother. I am still shocked by that. Such shame, too, that the culprits were Irish.
Racism became the thing I hated most. I tried to befriend a young black guy who had recently started at the factory, a year or two older than me, and would engage him in conversation about the need for racial harmony. I soon realized that he was smarter, better read than me, and knew something of Irish history. I was made to feel naive. I started to read more. Another workmate, a Glaswegian of Irish extraction, lent me a book, Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, which left a huge impression.
After my year in London, I returned to my parents’ house in Norwich. Belfast had been eclipsed by all the attendant distractions of youth. It was 1967. The Summer of Love. I soon adapted, making new friends easily enough, wanting only to be a part of what was happening, following the bands.
In the thick of all this innocence, I found time for further mischief, getting involved in a stupid, spur-of-the-moment prank of stealing a motorcycle. I was caught, as were the others, but unlike them, I had “previous” and was accordingly sent, three weeks short of seventeen, to what was then termed a Catholic senior approved school.
St John’s provided opportunities to learn. As well as basic writing and arithmetic, we could study for O-levels. I was encouraged by one of the masters to believe I had the necessary talent to get into art school, for which the basic entry requirement was five O-levels, which I duly got with a minimum of effort. While still under probation, I was freed to return to my parents in early August 1969 and to start at art school there in September. I was eighteen.
Before the month was out, Derry’s Bogside erupted, and Belfast responded. I remember the news coverage of British troops being deployed on the streets. Their presence seemed a positive development and a victory of sorts for beleaguered Catholics. Mum shared my optimism, but Dad commented, with impressive foresight, that once in, they would be there for a long time. Although I was interested in these developments, my attention soon refocused on starting at Norwich School of Art, attracted more to the idea of being an art student than of studying art.
My student career crashed before the finish of the first term, a casualty of too many alcohol-fueled binges and late nighters. Like every decade, the 1960s had its myths, one of which was certainly true for me: work of the low-skill variety was abundant. I often finished a job on a Friday and started in a new place on the following Monday. I bored easily and was never good with foremen.
However, as the situation started to deteriorate in Ireland, as media revelations about attacks on civil rights demonstrators and sectarian shootings and bombings by loyalists began to impinge upon my rudderless consciousness, I was drawn to understand more. It would be quite a stretch to claim I was politically aware, but so much was happening in the world, a tangible sense of change affected me in common with many of our generation.
The extent of my then-nascent radicalism was confined to pub rhetoric and rant. This was the early shaping of my politics. It was the era of Vietnam, of Mao’s Little Red Book, of Martin Luther King and the black civil rights marches, of the Prague Spring, of events in Paris. Then, in the middle of all this global upheaval of the oppressed, Ireland erupted.
Ireland as an issue now contended with Vietnam for signaling radical credit. My sense of drift was magnified. I wanted to anchor; to have a center of gravity. England had no further hold on this prodigal. All roads led to Belfast.
The Brighton Bombing
After several years as an IRA member, already wanted by the British police, Magee planted a bomb at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton that killed five people.
At 2:54 a.m. on Friday, October 12, 1984, a bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel, Brighton, killing four people and injuring thirty-four others. One of the injured died five weeks later. I planted the bomb. I did so as a volunteer in an IRA active service unit committed to the strategy of taking the war to England.
I won’t talk about the operational side of the Grand Hotel bombing. Suffice it to say, many were involved in the planning and logistical backup, few of them known to me, but of those I did know, all came from the poorest districts, north and south of the island. The charge consisted of a hundred pounds of gelignite, and not the thirty pounds of Semtex estimated by the British authorities and unquestioningly repeated by numerous journalists and writers ever since. The bomb was placed about three weeks prior to detonation.
Much careful consideration was given to the timing. The hotel had been reserved solely for the use of government ministers, National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations executive members, and HQ staff, except for a limited number of lobby correspondents. We wanted to lessen as far as possible the likelihood of injury to hotel staff. The device was timed, therefore, to go off when staff were less likely to be present.
But there was simply no guarantee that staff working a late shift in the bar and reception areas would escape the impact of the blast. At the time, I would have considered all those attending the conference to be Tory warmongers and therefore legitimate targets. Any civilian casualties would be deeply regrettable, but this was a chance to strike at the heart of a particularly vile British government, whose troops and collusive forces had targeted civilians, tortured prisoners, and murdered children on the streets of Belfast and, indeed, throughout the North.
If you had asked me then what the specific objective of the operation was, I couldn’t have answered with the insider certainty of a key strategist. I was not privy to the thinking of the leadership. I didn’t need to be. The target was an obvious one, requiring little further thought.
I was concerned, of course, at the likely reaction from the British state. The obvious expectation was of a security crackdown. I had to believe that the leadership had calculated the probable reactions to the operation and would plan accordingly.
Before the bomb went off, I was billeting with sympathizers in Cork. Although aware that I was a volunteer on the run, the people had no inkling of the Brighton operation, or that I was wanted for previous operations in England. It was a nerve-racking wait for confirmation that the bomb had detonated.
Thinking back on that moment, my immediate emotion was relief. That will, undoubtedly, strike many as cold and callous — certainly the victims and their relatives. But that initial response was of me as an operator. As the volunteer responsible for planting and arming the device, I carried arguably the heaviest burden for the outcome of the operation. If, for technical reasons, it hadn’t detonated, then the failure would have been down to me.
It was only afterward that I allowed the full enormity of the action to enter my thinking. What struck me forcefully was that this bomb would have profound implications for me directly, deeper than any from my previous involvement. My future seemed irretrievably narrowed.
It was not that I had naively failed to appreciate there would be repercussions. I had been on the run from the North since 1978 and was already sought by the British for bombs in England. For years, I had been monitored by Irish Special Branch. I knew that, if captured, I faced a hefty sentence. But Brighton was on a different scale.
I expected that the Brits would pull out all the stops in pursuit of those they held responsible. I knew that my name would be in the frame. Special Branch would have me shortlisted as a likely suspect. It later emerged during my trial that my name was in the ring by the end of October, within three weeks of the bombing. Because of Brighton, I would always be looking over my shoulder. They would never forget.
The bombing at the Grand Hotel broke Britain’s strategy of containment. I would argue that it had a more immediate but allied significance within the IRA, besides being a morale booster to comrades and our support base. Prior to Brighton, not everyone was convinced that taking the war to England was our single most effective strategy.
Some argued that we needed to increase the level of operations in the six counties; others believed that gaining de facto control of territory, that is, the creation of so-called Green or liberated zones, was an essential goal. Each had strong advocates and valid arguments. Resources of arms, explosives, personnel, and money were always scarce and hotly contended.
We had upped the ante. But we had to maintain the momentum. That meant a continuation of the England campaign. I believe that after Brighton, as a direct consequence, the movement was fully won over to the conviction — which beforehand only a rump had held — that we could best further our objectives by a long-term, sustained, and sustainable campaign of operations across the water.
I and those immediately around me were committed to this strategy. Following that logic, we prepared for the next operation. I gave a personal commitment to remain on active service outside of Ireland. There was nowhere to run, after all.
Patrick Magee received eight life sentences from a British court in 1986 for his role in the Brighton bombing. In 2000, soon after his release under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, Magee met with Joanna Berry, a woman whose father had been killed in Brighton.
On November 24, 2000, sixteen years after the bombing of the Grand Hotel and seventeen months after my release, I sat down and talked with Joanna Berry, whose father, the Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry, was one of the five people killed.
During the week of that encounter, I had been laboring on a building site in Dublin. Life since my release had been a struggle financially. As a recently released republican POW, with Christmas looming, casual work was all that I could get. Several former republican POWs were working along with me on the site, one of whom I’d known from the internment cages.
The practice in the construction industry then was to knock off early on Fridays. After lugging bags of cement and plasterboards up flights of concrete stairs since 8 that cold November morning, it was a relief to leave before 4. At forty-nine, I was wrecked, fit only for bed, but usually with the weekend in which to recoup before Monday.
This Friday was different. During the late summer, Ella O’Dwyer, my co-accused in the seaside bomb blitz campaign, had phoned me. A woman whose father was killed in the Brighton attack wanted to meet me. I had misgivings — I think, understandably. Ella was able to assure me that Joanna Berry had impressed those she met with her openness and sincerity. I was reassured to hear that she wasn’t seeking to confront me but rather to gain an understanding of the conflict that had robbed her of a father.
I believed then, and now I am even more convinced, that it is incumbent on republicans to avail of all opportunities to articulate our perspective, grievances, and objectives. An inchoate thought had been gathering, bereft of the language then to give it shape and force: the Brighton bomb was an IRA operation, but I held a personal responsibility; I couldn’t hide behind the IRA, however justifiable its actions.
Now I was hours away from meeting this woman — a daughter of one of the Brighton dead, herself a victim because of my actions. But the more formed feeling then was of detachment, and I still viewed a possible encounter with her more for its political than its human significance. A civilian victim of an IRA operation had sought a direct contact with the volunteer widely identified with that action.
Only a few years back, it would not have occurred to me that one day I might be meeting someone connected with the Brighton operation. Not Brighton. I knew that part of any conflict resolution process must involve dealing with the legacy of culpability and pain; with the past, and with what today are termed legacy issues. But I thought this would at some future date mean meeting with former loyalist combatants, ex–British Army squaddies or Special Branch torturers. Brighton didn’t seem to belong in the same reconciliatory universe.
I reasoned that the British political elite would never countenance a face-to-face with someone so publicly identified with a prestigious attack on them. I thought they would never forgive; that I would always have to look over my shoulder because of my key role in the bombing. Joanna Berry, I understood, would be there representing no one but herself. But in my head, she was categorized as “they”; and forgiveness was outside of the equation.
Joanna seemed very calm and centered. If she was nervous, she kept it well hidden. She was disconcertingly far removed from the stereotype of a Tory MP’s daughter I had lazily assimilated — prim, tweedy, blue-rinsed. I had been expecting someone much older. Instead, she appeared to be in her late twenties — rather tall, slim, in black leggings and a hippieish turquoise smock. I sensed no hostility at all.
She spoke first, thanking me for agreeing to meet her. What could I say to that? All I managed was to return the “thank you.” She was so polite. We sat down around the kitchen table, Joanna at an angle facing me. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t talk. The others picked up the slack with some polite stopgap exchanges.
I think I felt inhibited in front of the others at the table, all of whom were sympathetic and supportive; tongue-tied at the thought of them being witness to any outward expression of my inward emotional churning. This was a very private, scary moment. One unalterable factor, intrusive and unsettling, continually asserted itself: I had killed this woman’s father.
Placed in the same situation, I would be grateful for one iota of the calm integrity she exuded. Nothing in her demeanor or conduct betrayed any hint of hostility or bitterness. Instead, she epitomized dignity and poise. We talked alone for some three hours. I cannot recount verbatim what was exchanged or all of what was shared. I had come, of course, with an idea of what was expected of me and of the issues and questions likely to arise. Despite the forethought, I was tentative.
I remember wondering what the other Brighton victims would make of this. I was all too conscious of expressions of hostility toward me subsequent to my arrest and my public identification with the bombing. And she would have expectations about me, about her father’s killer. For years, I had been demonized as “the Brighton bomber.” The only corrective to the misrepresentation open to me was to present myself honestly, for better or worse.
I had to begin by stating something about my involvement in her father’s death. What else was she here for? Justifying the operation — the targeting, the bombing, the political and personal consequences, the intent — to the daughter who had lost her father may seem to many insensitive, perhaps obscenely crass. But that is how I began, and there is no way to finesse what I had to say.
Joanna was there precisely to hear my perspective. What would be the point of anything less than the fullest candor? I believed that the targeting of the Thatcher administration was a legitimate act of war. I stated to her that I would be as open about Brighton as possible; that as a republican I felt obliged to explain our beliefs and intentions when asked.
Joanna’s questions and comments revealed her as knowledgeable about the causes of the struggle. She had come a long way in her personal journey of understanding, after years invested in trying to grapple with issues of cause and effect, and of asking why, as she put it, she had so cruelly and suddenly been projected into the conflict as a casualty from the moment the bomb detonated.
Joanna also revealed an interesting insight as to why she kept returning to Ireland — she described her isolation as an English victim, without recourse to support. This she shared with other English victims of IRA operations who, geographically dispersed from Warrington to Bishopsgate, Birmingham to Brighton, were without community support and had little or no opportunity to talk through their losses with others who had similarly been bereaved.
At that time, there simply was no group, and few individuals, to whom Joanna and other victims could turn in Britain. Ireland offered the chance to share her and their pain with others, many others, who had been traumatized and damaged by the conflict. In Ireland, she was not alone; the currency of trauma was readily accepted within communities that had suffered greatly.
For the first time, I opened to the recognition that I was guilty of something I readily attributed to our enemies. That they had dehumanized Irish republicans is a truism, but I, too, had failed to appreciate the full humanity of our political foes, finding it easier to comprehend them as oppressors, fascists.
In that moment, an “enemy” began to assume a human face. I struggle, really, with the words to describe the experience. But I started to see Joanna’s father in a fuller light and to begin the process of understanding his view.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Joanna and I hugged. It was spontaneous. I told her that I was sorry that I killed her father; that “I want to help in any way I can.” Then Joanna — Jo — said: “I’m glad it was you.” It was such an extraordinary thing to say. I didn’t know how to, or whether I should, respond. I was left floundering. Perhaps nothing of significance was meant — no more than a clumsy exiting remark.
Our meeting felt like we were at the beginning of an experiment, without precedent — to somehow reconcile that loss with the human need to understand. I was left feeling almost bereaved, wanting this exploration to continue. It did not occur to me that Jo might feel the same.
Magee and Berry have gone on to meet several dozen times since their first encounter in 2000, and were featured in a British television documentary, Facing the Enemy. They were invited to speak to a British parliamentary group on conflict issues in 2009.