Thursday, October 15, 2009

Brighton bombing - 25 years on

On the 25th anniversary of the Brighton Conservative Party conference bombing, British media announced that the man behind the attack would attend a reconciliation ceremony at the House of Commons. Patrick Magee served 14 years for the bombing before being released as part of the peace process. But he was now been invited to a reconciliation and forgiveness event at Westminster on the 84th birthday of former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher a day later on 13 October. Baroness Thatcher would not be there but Magee would renew acquaintance with Jo Tufnell (nee Berry) the daughter of one of the five people killed in the explosion. (photo of Grand Hotel after the explosion from Wikipedia)

Patrick Magee is a former IRA operative who was born in Belfast in 1951 but moved with his family to Norwich when he was two. He returned to Belfast at the age of 18 in 1969 and joined the Provisional IRA soon afterwards just as the Troubles began to escalate. Magee had an aptitude for bomb making and rose to become the IRA's Chief Explosives Officer. He was imprisoned from 1973 to 1975 for being a member of the IRA before returning to active service and leading a massive mainland bombing campaign in 1978.

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister in a landslide election win. Within two years she was deemed public enemy number 1 by the IRA for her strong stance against the Maze hunger strikes which led to the deaths of Bobby Sands and nine other prisoners. Brighton would be the IRA’s revenge dish served cold.

The then 34-year-old Magee planted the bomb three and a half weeks prior to the explosion. He checked into the Grand on 14 September 1984 under the name of “Roy Walsh” and stayed there for three days. The receptionist allocated him Room 629 “because it was a nice room facing the sea”. There he put his Libyan bomb making skills to good use and primed a 30 pound (13 kg) explosive. He hid the bomb in a bathroom wall with a timing device set for 24 days ahead during the Conservative Party annual conference held at the hotel.

At 2.54am on 12 October, the bomb went off and blasted a massive hole through the hotel's facade. Five people died in the blast. They were Sir Anthony Berry, 59, the MP for Enfield Southgate; Roberta Wakeham, 45, wife of Tory Chief Whip Lord Wakeham; Conservative North West Area Chairman Eric Taylor, 54; Muriel Maclean, 54, wife of Scottish Chairman Sir Donald Maclean (the Macleans were in room 629); and Jeanne Shattock, 52, wife of the Western Area Chairman. Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Norman Tebbit, was rescued from the rubble but his wife was left paralysed for life.

Margaret Thatcher was awake and working on her conference speech at the time of the explosion. It was a day before her birthday. She was on the same floor as the blast but she and her husband Denis were uninjured. Afterwards, the IRA famously released their chilling message. "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."

But peace was the last thing on authorities’ minds. Sussex Police launched their biggest ever investigation to solve the crime. They meticulously tracked down 800 people from 50 countries who had stayed at the hotel in the month before the attack. Just one man could not be accounted for: Roy Walsh. The direction of the explosion pointed to his room. After three months, police finally matched a palm print on a hotel registration card to a print taken from Magee years earlier when he was arrested as a juvenile in Norwich. Police did not reveal their find hoping he would eventually return to the country.

But Magee did return to Britain without police knowledge. Their breakthrough came when Glasgow police tracked another IRA suspect Peter Sherry to an IRA safe house in the city. Magee was sprung. At his trial in June 1986 Justice Boreham recommended Magee serve a minimum of 35 years after an Old Bailey jury found him guilty. Boreham called him "a man of exceptional cruelty and inhumanity" who enjoyed "terrorist activities". In September Magee received eight life sentences, seven of them (planting the bomb, exploding it, and five counts of murder) were for Brighton.

Magee served thirteen years during which time he studied for two university degrees. He was transferred from Britain to the Maze jail in Northern Ireland in September l994, just after the start of the first IRA ceasefire. He was released in 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement after serving a third of his sentence. Then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesman said early prisoner releases were "the most unpalatable and awkward part" of Northern Ireland's peace process. But they were crucial to its success and so Magee was released along with many others despite the howls of protest by Tories and Unionists.

Magee met Jo Tufnell a year later. Tufnell had been profoundly impacted by the death of her father Sir Anthony Berry in the blast and was determined to find out more about the Northern Ireland conflict. After recovering from the shock of Magee’s early release, she decided she had to meet him. They initially met in secret at the house of a friend of Magee, a woman who runs a Belfast peace group called Seeds of Hope. The pair started talking immediately and did not stop for three hours.

Tufnell described the reaction of her 7-year-old daughter: “[She] got very angry when she found out I was going to meet the man who had killed grandpa. She wanted to come too. When I wouldn't let her, she asked me to tell Patrick that he's a bad man. She later asked if he was sorry. When I said yes, she asked, 'Does that mean grandpa can come back now?'”

Tufnell and Magee have since met many times. Magee still believes in the justness of his cause but says Norman Tebbitt's continued crusade against him was "understandable". Tufnell said her meetings with Magee have put a human face on this conflict. “I now see men like him as people with their own struggles, no longer as a faceless enemy, and that helps me,” said Tufnell. “I think it's been quite a struggle for Patrick to see me and my dad as real people rather than as justified targets.”

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