Andrew Billen - Just another villain

Television - A timely look into a terrorist's mind and the hurt he caused. By Andrew Billen


Because of the number of innocent Irishmen incarcerated during the IRA's 25-year bombing campaign on the mainland, we did not, perhaps, give the plods of the day credit where it was due. Two decades on from the Brighton bombing of 1984, Peter Taylor finally managed to persuade the man convicted of the outrage, Patrick Magee, to appear in an excellent two-part documentary (14 September). Magee didn't give us any blarney about his innocence or how he was just following orders. The bomb was all his own work. The police got the right man.

In true Hollywood fashion, Magee's nemesis was an old cop on the brink of retirement. Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Reece was a keen fisherman, but the pursuit of mackerel and sprats was not for him. He preferred to wait all day for one really big fish. The Brighton bomber would be his biggest catch of all. It was clear that the security services were not going to be much help. Taylor revealed that they had discovered a stash of IRA bomb timers in a wood nine months earlier, but had made no progress on where or when they would be used. On the week of the Conservative Party conference in Brighton, the official risk assessment was low. When, halfway through the conference, it was upgraded to Bikini Black Alpha (what ridiculous jargon our spooks use!), nobody told the Brighton constabulary.

The morning after the blast, Reece set his men to work sifting through every ounce of Grand Hotel rubble until part of the timing device was finally found lodged in a lavatory bowl, way above in what had been Room 629. There, three weeks previously, Magee had fixed the device behind the panel of the bath in his room. The room's cleaner, whom he refused to let in throughout his stay, said her hand has never stopped shaking from the memory of their encounter.

Reece's next task was to interview the 800 people who had stayed in the hotel during the four weeks before the bombing. All checked out except one: a certain Roy Walsh, who had given a false London address. On his registration card, however, he had left a partial handprint, which was matched, incredibly, not to records taken during his internment in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, but to his time as a teenage thief in Norfolk. He was traced to an IRA safe house in Glasgow, where he was planning a whole summer season of seaside bombs.

Most of this was told in the second documentary. Norman and Margaret Tebbit, as well as the widow of Anthony Berry, who was killed in the blast, co-operated on condition that the bomber would not appear on the same programme. As a result, it was divided into two, the first part centring on the bombing and the victims, the second on Reece and Magee. The division did no great harm, although one day, perhaps, they could be re-edited into a continuous 90-minute film, perhaps for general release.

Sarah Berry's description of being buried alive, her shouts and the yelps of her dogs unheard, certainly bears comparison with the testimony of the trapped climber in Touching the Void. She said she would have done almost anything to be stretched out on the beach and allowed to die in the fresh air. Being Tories at the height of quash-the-miners Thatcherism, the victims are not, maybe even now, the most sympathetic of causes. Footage of the Thursday-night partying in the hours before the explosion brought back some of that period's triumphalism. And yet the programme made you appreciate not only the suffering of the Tebbits, but also their touchingly intimate relationship.

"I don't forgive them, because they never repented," said Margaret Tebbit from her wheelchair. Taylor, in the second programme, did what he could to force repentance out of Magee. He had not, after all, assassinated the Tory high command, but mainly their wives. His only real regret, however, was that the bombing campaign was "necessary".

Magee came over not as a psychopath but as a fanatic, which is as bad. He had been brought up mainly in England and returned to Belfast aged 19 in 1972, when there was a British soldier on every street corner. "The hatred that led to Brighton was generated here on the streets of Belfast," said Taylor, who has covered the province for many years. After two years in Long Kesh prison, Magee signed up for active service with the IRA and became its top bomber. His nickname was "the Chancer".

Reece pointed out, however, that leaving behind a bomb with a three-week fuse in a hotel room was not taking much of a chance. He was deeply unimpressed that his prize catch had been released as part of the Good Friday Agreement after only 13 years of the recommended 35 years in jail: "He was just another criminal. Just another villain." Although it is not quite so simple, that still seems to me the best way for the state to regard terrorists. That is why internment without trial was wrong in Ireland and remains wrong in Guantanamo and Belmarsh: it awards criminals special status. "I can't regret my past," said Magee. "We were an army. We were fighting a war." For Bush and Blair now to advertise a war on terror is crazy. A war is what the terrorists want us to fight. Bring back Chief Super Reece.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Property scandal