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28 March 2023

The IRA’s blank assassin

The Brighton bomb killed five people but failed to hit its target, Margaret Thatcher.

By Michael Burleigh

Party political conferences have special importance to terrorist planners. The dates and locations are announced well in advance; the leadership of the governing party attends en masse, and so does much of the media.

The IRA’s seven-strong Army Council first looked at attacking a party conference in 1979, the main target being Labour’s robust Northern Ireland secretary Roy Mason, who they blamed for the brutal interrogation methods (what he called “slap and tickle”) of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). A young Patrick Joseph Magee carried out the scouting in Brighton. Following the deaths in 1981 of Bobby Sands and nine other IRA hunger strikers in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland, two members of that council, Owen Coogan and Michael Hayes, urged their comrades to strike at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton. Although fellow council member Gerry Adams was seeking to develop Sinn Féin’s political track, it’s possible that he may have regarded the 1984 Brighton bombing as useful raw meat to throw to militants who despised him, though he later denied any involvement with the attack.

The mission fell to the IRA’s England Department, which included operatives who could move around enemy country without attracting notice. Specifically, they turned to Magee, who had grown up in Norwich. A few minor acts of juvenile delinquency meant his prints were on record, but he could affect an indeterminate English accent and knew how to make sophisticated bombs. Magee had returned to Belfast in 1971 and joined the IRA a year later, after being roughed up by soldiers and the RUC. He rapidly became an experienced IRA engineering officer.

Magee also became intimately acquainted with the other side of terrorism. In November 1981 he was wounded in the leg when loyalist Ulster Defence Association gunmen burst into the Sinn Féin headquarters in Dublin. This left him with a limp, his only remarkable feature other than one missing fingertip, an occupational hazard of his trade.

Magee’s mission was to spend three nights as “Roy Walsh” in Brighton’s Grand Hotel. There he secreted a gelignite bomb behind the tiles of the bath in room 629 on the sixth floor. The bomb relied on a delayed action timer of the kind used to set VHS recorders in advance. Long before the attack, an IRA structural engineer scouted the hotel building. He established that were a bomb to be planted on the sixth floor, then five-tonne chimney stacks would plunge down to the first floor where Margaret Thatcher would be sleeping in the hotel’s best suite. Her assassination was the point of this mission, a revenge attack for Sands and his comrades. It was also part of a line of “spectaculars”, including the 1979 murder of Lord Mountbatten.

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[See also: The best non-fiction books to read in 2023]

Rory Carroll’s fascinating book is a tautly written account of the Brighton bombing and the hunt for the main assassin. Since Magee has never been a talker, we do not learn much about Coogan and Hayes, who lobbied for the assassination, or the 20 or so people who formed Magee’s support team. Although he checked into the Grand with a heavy suitcase, it is assumed that two women delivered the battery and 25 pounds of gelignite. He also had lunch with another man in the hotel dining room, but “witnesses” could recall him even less than they remembered Magee, who otherwise remained in room 629.

Inevitably, the book has a slightly provincial focus. Irish nationalist violence had many international antecedents: for example, in 1919, during the War of Independence, the IRA leader Michael Collins organised assassination squads modelled on the far larger campaign waged by Finnish, Russian and Ukrainian socialist revolutionaries against tsarist officials. Carroll does not make very much either of IRA links with the Gaddafi regime in Libya, or Boston mobsters such as Whitey Bulger who supplied the IRA with weapons.

Nor does the then 33-year-old Magee give Carroll much to work with. The invisible man was a quiet, steely, serial liar. He was not cut out to be a gunman but he knew his craft and was ready to return to Britain again and again: the nom de guerre given to him by the British security services was “the Chancer” – they knew his technical signature but not his name.

Magee had been radicalised by what he saw and experienced in Belfast. The only settled life he had known was while on the run in the Netherlands when he lodged with a kind Dutch family, but that ended with Dutch policemen holding a gun to his head. He was prepared to sacrifice his relationship with his wife Eileen and young son Padraig – they drifted apart because of Magee’s long stints resting underground in the Republic between his missions in England. He was very confident that the British would not catch him, even though he realised that were Thatcher to have been killed, he would spend his life looking over his shoulder.

That he got away with this strange life for so long was partly due to cunning, but also the bureaucratic rivalries between the RUC, MI5, MI6, Special Branch and the Anti-Terrorist Branch C13, which contrived not to communicate even when sharing the same building.

Carroll is excellent on the technical limitations of detective work, right on the cusp of the digital age. Apart from almost 900 tonnes of hotel rubble which had to be hand-sifted for physical clues, detectives had to consult about 50,000 files of witness statements as well as information on 2,000 suspected IRA operatives.

Though Magee had been careful to leave no fingerprints on the hotel registration card, chemical developments enabled a brilliant forensic expert David Tadd to elicit a palm print, which he eventually matched with one taken in Norwich decades before. Meanwhile, Magee daringly returned to Britain in early 1985 for a 16-bomb campaign against English seaside resorts. After planting a bomb in the Rubens Hotel in Victoria, central London, Magee and his entire team were arrested on 22 June in a Glasgow flat as they prepared to launch their summer campaign of violence.

In 1986, he was given eight life sentences, although he would serve only 14 of the 35-year minimum term. Released in 1999 under the Good Friday Agreement, Magee has tried a peace and reconciliation double act with Jo Berry, the daughter of one of his victims in Brighton. For Carroll, Magee’s position is “a moral murk – remorse without repentance”.

Carroll is also especially good on the policemen who pursued Magee, one of whom had the horrible task, in 1981, of looking for bomb parts around the disintegrated corpse of a friend and colleague in the basement lavatories of an Oxford Street store.

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The Brighton blast killed five people and wounded 31 others, but failed to hit its target. At 2.45am Thatcher was in her Napoleon Suite’s sitting room, having just approved final amendments to her speech to be delivered later that day. Determined to process her red boxes before bed, she rose to use the lavatory and returned to her armchair at 2.52am. Had she still been in the bathroom when the bomb exploded at 2.54am, she may well have been killed, but the falling chimney stack missed the lounge, and she was not scratched. She returned to the conference at 9.30am and was quickly back in militant mode, though she never succumbed to crude calls for vengeance. Norman Tebbit heroically coped with his own serious injuries and the paralysis of his wife.

Everyone in this book seems more vivid than Magee, who Carroll, rightly, does not attempt to animate. His facelessness leaves Magee a human blank; it was also what made him a formidable assassin.

Michael Burleigh’s “Day of the Assassins: A History of Political Murder” is published by Picador

Killing Thatcher: The IRA, the Manhunt and the Long War on the Crown
Rory Carroll
Mudlark, 416pp, £25

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special