“The air was full of cement, cement and dust. You know, it was grit in your teeth,” Margaret Thatcher remembers of the immediate aftermath of the explosion which the IRA hoped would assassinate her and most of her cabinet in 1984. “But I have remained forever grateful that the lights were on, on our floor and as we went down,” she adds.
The bomb which sent the cement and dust flying killed five people and wrecked much of Brighton’s Grand Hotel. It represented a lethal republican strike against the heart of the British establishment. Yet within a few years the Thatcher government would be secretly in contact with the IRA as part of Ireland’s extraordinary peace process. And less than two decades later the man who planted the bomb would argue that it was a necessary episode in that process.
But in the wake of the explosion on October 12th, 1984 there was no thought of the future: all thoughts were focussed on who had died and who had survived, and who might be injured and trapped beneath the mounds of rubble that had generated the cement and the dust.
When the bomb went off at 2.54am most of the hotel’s occupants were asleep, but Thatcher was working in the sitting room of her first-floor suite. She and her staff and advisers had just finished the speech she was to deliver to the Conservative party conference later that day, and the final version was being typed in the next room.
She was joined by her private secretary, Robin Butler, who years later as cabinet secretary was to play an important part in the Irish peace process. Despite the late hour, he had brought her a memo which for some reason Number 10 felt required urgent attention: it was a paper from Michael Heseltine about what would happen to the Liverpool Garden site after the Garden Festival.
Butler takes up the story: “Actually by past standards it was quite an early hour for her to have finished. I said to her, `Could you look at this overnight, and give me an answer at breakfast?` And she said, `Well if you wouldn’t mind I’d much rather do it now, and then I can forget about it and concentrate on the speech.’ So we were sitting in her sitting room in the Grand Hotel; she was reading this minute; and I wasn’t doing anything except thinking how nice it would be to be in bed in about five minutes time, and I was woozy. And there was suddenly this great explosion.”
As Thatcher recalls events, “I looked at the papers very quickly and decided, and just as I handed them back to him there was this loud blast.” At the time no one knew it in the confusion, but the IRA bomb had blown out the front wall of the hotel, causing some floors to cascade down, destroying the roof and bringing down a large chimney stack. The rubble fell to the basement, filling it and the two floors above.
The device that did such damage had been planted almost a month earlier by Belfast IRA member Patrick Magee and another republican. They had stayed in room 629, checking in on September 15th and leaving on the 18th. He signed the register as Roy Walsh, giving a false address in London. During their stay the pair carefully concealed a bomb containing up to 30lb of explosives in room 629’s bathroom. The device had a long-term timer which set it off at 2.54am, the intention clearly being to kill as many as possible of the hotel residents, many of whom were attending the annual Tory conference in the seaside town.
As the initial shock wave subsided Butler and Thatcher looked at each other. He recalls: “My first thought was that it was a car bomb outside the hotel, and so I said to her `You’d better come away from the windows’ and we moved across the room. And then, before I could restrain her, she said `I must see if Denis is all right.’ She opened the door to the bedroom and she plunged into the darkness, through which one could hear the sounds of falling masonry and water. That was the bathroom collapsing, as we afterwards discovered. You could hear falling masonry and dripping water through it.”
Butler was momentarily transfixed as the prime minister of Britain left the apparent safety of the sitting room to plunge into a dust-filled room in search of her husband. He remembers: “I was left in the doorway wondering how I was going to explain to the tribunal of enquiry that I’d let the prime minister go into this maelstrom, perhaps never to be seen again. Fortunately within a few seconds she and Denis emerged, Denis pulling a pair of flannels over his pyjamas and clutching some shirts.”
Cabinet ministers and others gathered in the corridor, but debate on what to do ended with Thatcher announcing: “I’m not leaving Brighton.” Then a fireman appeared, and led them through the hotel. As they made their way out Thatcher’s detectives tried as best they could to ensure her immediate security, fearful that a second device had been planted. The thick cement dust covered the prime minister’s clothes and went into her mouth as, in her words, “I clambered over discarded belongings and broken furniture towards the back entrance of the hotel.”
While she was being driven to a local police college, Butler went back upstairs, picking up important papers and clothes for both Thatchers. He commented: “If I’d known the hotel was hanging by a thread above my head I wouldn’t have done it.”
Thatcher recalls that no one spoke as she was driven to the police college. When she arrived, with her personal assistant Cynthia “Crawfie” Crawford, she recalled: “I could only think of one thing to do. Crawfie and I knelt by the side of our beds and prayed for some time in silence.”
A few hours later millions watched on television as rescue workers gingerly brought injured minister Norman Tebbit out of the shattered hotel. There were heroics among the rubble. One consultant surgeon who rushed to the scene worked with masonry falling around him, jolted by electric shocks caused by water cascading on to live cables. It quickly became obvious that the bomb had claimed lives. A fireman who saw a hand sticking out of the debris felt for a pulse but found no sign of life: it was a Tory MP, one of two men and three women killed in the attack. Dozens more were injured.
As the toll of death and injury mounted, Butler was astonished to hear Thatcher declare: “Well of course we must get to the conference on time.” He related: “I couldn’t believe it. I said to her, `You’re not reckoning to continue the conference when you’ve got your colleagues, some dead, some still being dug out of the wreckage?’ And she said immediately: `We cannot let terrorism obstruct democracy – it’s what those people would want. We must start on time.’ And I was appalled – but she was right. I spent the morning helping to re-write the conference speech, which clearly had to have its tone completely changed. It was now a very sombre occasion and all the jokes, indeed all the political jibes, had to be taken out.”
Thatcher radiated defiance and contempt for the IRA in her conference speech, and never lost her strong instinct that the Northern Ireland problem was essentially one of security rather than a political matter. Her attitude to republicans was that they had to be faced down and defeated. She would say of her decision to go ahead with the conference: “It was a very British reaction. We were British, that’s what it was.”
Sir Patrick Mayhew, later one of her Northern Ireland Secretaries, would recall: “She very frequently came up with the view that the task was to defeat the IRA – this was fundamental to her thinking. It became more so, not unnaturally, after the IRA tried to blow her up in Brighton. She constantly asked the military and security people to look at the options for dealing with security, and she honestly had rather less interest in trying to resolve the political aspects of the problem.”
The IRA at the time concurred with her view that the Northern Ireland problem was essentially military rather than political. In a statement addressed to Thatcher after Brighton the organisation chillingly declared: “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 war.”
The bombing had its effects on the prime minister on a personal level: she was always grateful that the lights in the Grand Hotel had stayed on, and was haunted by the idea of being left in the dark in the event of another attack. For months afterwards she kept a torch by her bed when staying in a strange house. She was adamant, however, that the Brighton attack would not deflect her one millimetre from her course of action. She was at the time in the course of a series of conversations and contacts with the Irish prime minister of the day, Garret FitzGerald. He condemned the bombing, both publicly and in a private letter to her. She continued the contacts, and at their next meeting insisted it would not change her views.
Recalling the meeting Dermot Nally, the Irish cabinet secretary, said: “She was very vehement about a number of issues. You see the Brighton bomb had just gone off and so the first thing she said was, `Anything I say here and now is not influenced by the bomb, I am not going to be influenced by that sort of stuff. Anything I do, I will do it because I am convinced it should be done, not because people throw violence at me.'”
In the year of the hungerstrike Margaret Thatcher had been prime minister for only two years. She had not quite solidified her reputation as the Iron Lady, though this dispute would help do so. To her mind the issue was stark and straightforward. IRA and other republican prisoners had for years been protesting that they were different from “ordinary criminals” and demanded to be treated differently. In the course of the dispute they had disrupted prison life while on the outside the IRA had killed a number of prison officers in support of the campaign.
She spelt out her position at the time, declaring: “I want this to be utterly clear. The government will never concede political status to the hungerstrikers or to any others convicted of criminal offences.” British cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong described her approach: “Mrs Thatcher was certainly very much against any concessions. She did not want to start a process whereby there would be successive hungerstrikes, during which she or the British government would be asked or begged to give further ground. That was always her clear position on the hungerstrike.”
Although the republicans were ecstatic at what they saw as a famous victory, they were mistaken in thinking it would change Thatcher’s mind. Instead she stuck to her position, holding firmly to the view that making concessions to prisoners amounted to being soft on terrorism. “There can be no question of political status for someone who is serving a sentence for crime,” she declared. “Crime is crime is crime. It is not political, it is crime.”
On May 5th, less than a month after his election to the Commons, the emaciated Sands died at 1.17am, on the 66th day of hungerstrike. He instantly entered republican mythology as one of its most revered martyrs: his portrait, annually re-painted, remains one of the most prominent of the many republican murals on Belfast’s Falls Road. Nearly two decades later, when Sinn Fein delegates moved into government offices to negotiate what would become the Good Friday Agreement, one of the first things they did was to hang a portrait of Bobby Sands on the wall. At the time of his death Thatcher described Sands as “a convicted criminal who chose to take his own life.” Some years later however she would admit to a grudging respect: “It was possible to admire the courage of Sands and the other hungerstrikers who died, but not to sympathise with their murderous cause.”
In London Thatcher and most of the establishment believed that with the failure of the hungerstrike a crushing blow had been dealt against terrorism. Things looked less rosy in Belfast, however, where a new Northern Ireland Secretary, James Prior, arrived to find “an embittered and totally polarised society.”
David Goodall, a senior British civil servant who came from a Catholic family with Irish connections, described Thatcher’s general approach to Ireland. He remembered: “There was a dinner in 1982 and the guests left and Mrs Thatcher said to me to come and have a drink. So we went and sat down with her private secretary, just the three of us. The conversation turned to Ireland and it turned out that she had read quite a lot about the Irish problem. People said she didn’t know anything about it but actually she did know quite a lot about it.
“I said that one of the complicating factors in the relationship was that so many British people were of Irish descent, and indeed though they don’t like to admit it a very high proportion of the population of the Republic is actually of British descent. Mrs Thatcher said: `I am completely English.’ But it was clear from the conversation that she felt that most things had been tried and nothing seemed to work. She didn’t have a clear idea of what she wanted to do but she wanted to have another go at the problem.”
But Thatcher, as her private secretary Charles Powell was to explain, was wedded to tackling the problem through security methods: “The issues of alienation of the minority, which Dr FitzGerald used to talk about so much, would disappear if terrorism could be eliminated. Her thinking was based crucially on getting rid of terrorism.
(The above is an extract from Endgame in Ireland by Eamonn Mallie and David McKittrick)