The IRA bomber who almost wiped out Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative cabinet in 1984 secretly scouted a Labour party conference in Brighton seven years earlier, he has disclosed.
Magee, who was convicted of murdering five people in the 1984 bombing of the Grand hotel, said he was part of an IRA team that visited the seaside town in 1977 to potentially target Labour government figures.
The then Northern Ireland secretary, Roy Mason, had approved brutal police interrogations of IRA suspects, Magee told the Guardian. “They had the green light to torture us, without a doubt. That was a Labour administration.”
Upon taking up his post in Belfast, Mason had vowed to roll up the IRA like a “tube of toothpaste”. He presided over new Royal Ulster Constabulary interrogation centres at Castlereagh and other locations that yielded confessions and intelligence that badly damaged the IRA.
“I can remember going into Castlereagh shortly after he came into power and the atmosphere in there had changed,” said Magee, who was frequently detained and questioned. “He had given the green light. And they all knew it in there.” Magee said he was beaten for two hours.
The Brighton bomber revealed the surveillance on James Callaghan’s government in a memoir, Where Grieving Begins, published this month. “We stood on the top floor of a shopping mall overlooking the rear of the Brighton centre during the British Labour party’s annual conference and imagined Mason’s reaction if he knew how close we were.”
Thatcher’s unbending stance during the 1981 hunger strikes had made her a hate figure among Irish republicans. Less well known until now was the depth of loathing for Mason.
Magee, who served 14 years in prison before being released in 1999 under the Good Friday agreement, told the Guardian the Labour party conference was an obvious target but did not say if the IRA actually considered attacking it.
The Belfast native, who gained a PhD while in jail, said he cannot disclose details of the IRA’s campaign. “So much can’t be said … because of the nature of the conflict and my role in it.”
Magee, posing as an Englishman, checked into the Grand hotel in Brighton in September 1984 and hid a bomb with a long-delay timer in his room on the sixth floor. It exploded three weeks later on the last night of the Conservative party conference, killing five people and wounding dozens. Thatcher’s suite was damaged but she escaped unscathed and gave a defiant speech hours later.
“The bombing feels like the sort of thing that must be of great historical importance: a modern-day Gunpowder Plot, a declaration of war,” said Steve Ramsey, author of Something Has Gone Wrong, a book on the bombing’s aftermath. In fact government policy continued largely unchanged, said Ramsey.
Magee expressed regret for the deaths and suffering he inflicted but defended the Brighton bomb, and the wider IRA campaign, as part of a strategy that led to negotiations and eventual peace.
He said English nationalism, in the form of Brexit, may help deliver what the IRA did not – a united Ireland. “Britain itself looks like it can’t survive as a political formation. I’m not trying to make any predictions about it but it looks pretty shaky.” Magee, 70, thinks he will see a united Ireland in his lifetime. “I think it’s a natural outcome.”
He would like it to be inclusive and welcoming to Northern Ireland’s unionists and loyalists, he said. “If you’re going to reunite the country it’s got to be done properly, thought through, argued, so everybody is sure that it’s established constitutionally.”
Since his release Magee has forged a friendship with Jo Berry, the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry, an MP killed in the Brighton bomb. Their discussions about empathy and forgiveness have given rise to seminars, documentaries and a play. Berry wrote the foreword to Where Grieving Begins.
Magee has also become an unlikely friend to Harvey Thomas, a Tory who organised the Brighton conference and almost died in the bomb. Thomas, a Christian, has forgiven Magee and hosted him at the family home.
“He’s a delightful guy,” said Thomas. “Now that does not excuse what he did and I do not condone what he did. It was 100% wrong, it was killing, it was violence.” Thomas’s daughter confronted Magee over breakfast, he said. “She said, ‘Pat you do realise that if you’d succeeded in killing daddy I wouldn’t be here?’ He was in tears.”
Norman Tebbit, a cabinet minister severely injured in the bomb, said Magee deserved not forgiveness but capital punishment for blowing up a hotel filled with sleeping civilians. “They were nothing but common criminals. The only way to deal with them, to end terrorism, is to catch them and bring them to justice. ”
The bomb left Tebbit’s wife, Margaret, almost completely paralysed until her death last December, aged 86. Tebbit said Magee had not renounced his violent actions and had leveraged his failure to kill Thatcher into a post-prison career. “He’s just traded on his failures. He’s not repented therefore he cannot be forgiven.”
Asked about Margaret Tebbit, Magee said: “The woman was in a wheelchair for all those years, you’re bound to have profound regret about that – of course I have.” He said of Lord Tebbit’s comments: “I wouldn’t really have expected him to say different.”