Sunday Business Post - 2000/08/27


Sunday, August 27, 2000
By Tom McGurk

Provisional IRA man Patrick Magee was found guilty of bombing the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party conference in 1984. Five people died and Margaret Thatcher was lucky to escape. Magee talks for the first time about the event and about why he believes it was the correct political strategy.

'I was alone in the dock for sentencing for Brighton. Although arrested with four others in connection with the unrelated seaside bombing, I was the only one charged in connection with the Grand Hotel. And you could have heard a pin drop in the Old Bailey.

Of course I was concentrating on not showing any emotion, that would be a fatal weakness because they would know then that they had you. The judge suddenly looked at me and said 35 years. In a flash I did the calculation: I was now 35, I might be out when I was 70 and since my grandparents had averaged about 74 years, I calculated there that was at least four years of freedom at the end of all this."

Like most events in his extraordinary life Patrick Magee recalls this moment in considerable detail. In conversation every word is measured, each sentence comes out like it has been carefully polished. And he had plenty of time for polishing his thoughts: 14 years in all, much of it spent in the bleak concrete otherworldliness of British prisons' Special Secure Units (SSUs). A place where every night before bed you might assemble all the bits you were composed of and study each one of them carefully before putting them back where they hopefully belonged.

At one stage during his imprisonment, a Conservative home office minister arbitrarily raised the "minimum tariff" he would have to serve from 35 to "whole of life" (this was later reduced by Jack Straw to 50 years but only after a judicial review).

It was perhaps no more than he might have expected from a part of the British establishment which had almost been destroyed when the Grand Hotel in Brighton was bombed by the IRA. Magee went down for the most spectacular attack in a 30-year campaign, condemned to a lifetime in the SSUs.

Seven or eight men living in a concrete bunker the size of a tennis court with 24-hour surveillance, single cells, a pool table, a television and a tiny exercise yard with a grill across the top to prevent helicopter escape. When the sun shone during exercise hour you stepped on shadow after shadow of hundreds of small wire cages. Presumably from the God's eye view you would be looking down on a cage of humans. The accent was on sensory deprivation, a sort of prison storeroom where even the wildest plants wilted.

Moving from one prison SSU to another involved the creation of a cortege that was both a monument to his importance and to his captor's sense of epic proportionality, as handcuffed he would travel in a vast convoy of armour-plated cars with a helicopter hovering overhead. How strange to spend years trying to break the prisoner's spirit and then to give him such a royal procession every few years. The SSUs were so devoid of colour that years later, when he first saw the outside again, he remembers standing amazed and Adam-like at how green it all was.

He recalls it all now with a curious mixture of indifference, perhaps in recognition of the many who, after Brighton, would happily have seen him hanged. But this public enemy number one, in the aftermath of his arrest in Glasgow, suddenly began to realise how lucky he had been.

When his legal team showed him the MI5 and police special branch surveillance records that resulted in his arrest after he was followed from Carlisle railway station, he realised for the first time how extensively, and for how long, he had been tailed.

The records revealed something else that set his long years in prison in another context. As he puts it himself: "They were clearly surprised that when I met up with Peter Sherry [a republican from Co Tyrone] at Carlisle, we took the train north to Glasgow. They were expecting us down south -- in Metropolitan police land -- and I don't think they had arresting us in mind."

Magee believes that, had he travelled to London, he might quickly have met the same fate as befell the three IRA members cut down by the SAS in Gibraltar some years later. The police in Scotland played it by the book, however, and Magee sat silent during his seven-day long interrogation, refusing even to acknowledge the grudging praise from a police officer that "they were getting nowhere with him".

A generation on, were you to meet him on any train and strike up a conversation, you would presume that this quiet, soft-spoken and persistently serious man was a teacher or a researcher or even a former monk. It might take your breath away to discover that this 49-year-old bearded, ascetic man is both the Brighton bomber who nearly killed Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Dr Patrick Magee PhD BA (first class hons) -- and a considerable authority on Irish post-colonial representations in popular fiction, as his thesis puts it.

As the five Grand Hotel dead were buried and the grievously injured tried to get on with the rest of their lives, and as the dimensions of such an act on the part of the IRA sank into the consciousness of all who played a part on the Irish stage, Magee closed his cell door and opened up his books. Like the surviving victims of Brighton, he also had to accept a new reality; he also had to get on with surviving the consequences of the Brighton bomb.

His position on the IRA campaign and the Brighton bombing is quietly articulated. He stresses that this interview will provide his personal opinions only and not the views of any other person or organisation. He will not speak about the planning and operation of Brighton.

While he was just one of a very large group, he was the only one who was publicly identified and punished for the attack. As he says himself: "Quite honestly it's too early to talk candidly about these events. There are the feelings of the victims to be taken into account and I wouldn't want to be giving any offence."

But he accepts both his part and his responsibilities for those that died or were maimed. What he will not accept is that the fingerprint on the registration card recovered from the hotel ruins that was used to convict him was his. "If that was my fingerprint, I didn't put it there."

At this stage it's not a plea about wrongful conviction, more an old habit of pointing out how creative Constable Plod can be.

"I regret the deaths at Brighton," he says. "I deeply regret that anybody had to lose their lives but at the time did the Tory ruling class expect to remain immune from what their frontline troops were doing to us? From the mid-1970s on, the two principal considerations for the British in dealing with the IRA were criminalisation and containment.

"In lieu of the capacity to wipe out the IRA, the long-term strategy was to depict us as criminals while containing the war within the North. As long as the war was kept in that context, they could sustain the years of attrition. But in the early 1980s we succeeded in destroying both strategies. The hunger strike destroyed the notion of criminalisation and the Brighton bombing destroyed the notion of containment.

"After Brighton, anything was possible and the British for the first time began to look very differently at us; even the IRA itself, I believe, began to fully accept the priority of the campaign in England."

Born into the small nationalist ghetto of the Markets in Belfast, it was almost inevitable, given the political tides of the late 1960s, that Magee would end up where he did. Irish history runs like a tide through his family. His grandfather joined the British Army and ended up as part of the famous Connaught Rangers' mutiny in Lucknow in India in 1920. The largely Irish-recruited regiment downed arms and refused to soldier in protest at Black and Tan atrocities back home. The mutineers were jailed and one of their number, Private James Daly of Tyrrellspass, Co Westmeath, was the last serving British soldier executed by firing squad for mutiny.

When his grandfather returned to Ireland, he joined the IRA in Belfast and ended up interned on the Argenta prison ship in Belfast Lough in the 1920s. His own father was trained as a boilermaker in the Belfast shipyards but when he completed his apprenticeship he was not offered a job.

Obviously his religion may have been a factor but at four years of age Magee found himself living in Norwich in England. He admits he was a difficult child. Leaving school at 13 he did the round of reform schools after a spell of teenage misdemeanours. He then broke from home, returned to Belfast in time to join the IRA and wound up interned in Long Kesh.

He recalls a surreal scene in 1971 when he walked for what seemed like miles along the Falls, past burnt-out houses and cars, clutching his suitcase. There was no turning back. According to security forces, he went back to England in the mid-1970s as part of the IRA's rebuilding there after the capture of what became known as the "Balcombe Street Gang".

He is not yet ready to speak about his time on active service there but from security sources it is possible to discern his paramilitary significance. Eight months after Brighton, he was captured along with an IRA unit in a flat in Glasgow. It was only when he was arraigned at the Old Bailey for the Brighton bombing that Magee's war became public.

Does he think about the victims? "I do," he says. "Frequently. When I was in prison one of them began a correspondence with me. I'm not prepared to compromise the privacy of that but we did briefly correspond over a period of time. I lost contact since my release but I think perhaps the time is now right to make contact again. I would envisage meeting this person too provided it didn't turn into a circus."

Why did the victim make contact? Magee reflects quietly for a moment and then adds that perhaps opening communication was part of the healing process.

And what about the reported anger of Norman Tebbit's wife, now permanently paralysed, when asked about his academic achievements?

"I understand that," he says. "Mrs Tebbit is entitled to her anger. But on a wider scale I must ask were the Tory classes in Britain completely oblivious to what they were inflicting on our communities? Did they never think that one day their turn might come?"

It is obvious that speaking about his victims is difficult for Magee but he is much more forthcoming on the wider political and strategic context of Brighton. He insists that it helped convince people that the war was winnable in England: most importantly, he defines "winnable" in political terms.

"By winnable I mean achieving the necessary level of political leverage and in my mind there is no doubt that the peace process is that political leverage. Until Brighton we were not being taken seriously by the British political establishment, we were trapped in the acceptable level of violence strategy and it's important to remember that the only way we could have lost this war was to be trapped in indefinitely fighting it."

Since the intention was to kill Mrs Thatcher, I ask him did he regret that she wasn't killed? "No," he says firmly.

In retrospect he now believes that it was better that they didn't. He explains that there's an argument that overkill can be counterproductive. The awareness that it could have been worse, he claims, actually gave the IRA more leverage than if they had killed her.

"It probably gave us more political leverage in the long run," he says. "In fact if half the British government had been killed, it might have been simply impossible for a generation for the British establishment to come to terms with us. But I will stop now because I don't want to get into a 'how many is it necessary to kill before they take us seriously scenario'. Let me make it clear, I think it's hugely regrettable that anyone had to die but equally I believe that the IRA actions over the last 30 years were justified. There was simply no other way".

But what about John Hume's scenario that all of the violence was unnecessary, that the civil rights campaign would have delivered on its own?

Yet again Magee's answer comes as a defiant justification of the IRA campaign. "Do you seriously think," he asks, "that without the armed struggle the unionists would have sat down with the SDLP and implemented an equality agenda? It's even hard enough winning rights now in the presence of this political agenda. Can you imagine if there wasn't the strength of Sinn Fein that constitutional nationalism, as we understand it, could have delivered that on its own? The military campaign was also about radicalising politics in the ghetto, and in many ways it was our own previous political failures that made that necessary too.

"Importantly, too, once nationalism itself couldn't exclude us then neither could the British and Irish political establishments. And in ways too, by reason of our initial political ineptitude, we were excluding ourselves as well."

Magee has emerged as a vigorous supporter of the peace process and he insists the military campaign was a priori a result of the intrinsic political failures of republicanism at the outset and that it was in itself only a part of a wider process to deliver political leverage for the inevitable entry into politics.

"The last 30 years has been a process where we gained or garnered political strength," he says. "In fact the military campaign facilitated that development. The hunger strike accelerated our political nexus; it began all this. It showed people how much could be achieved politically. Of course at the time we had the ballot box and armalite strategy, the halfway house so to speak, but that too was a transitional phase. If you look at Irish history, particularly the republican story, what defeated us in the past was lack of unity, especially between the soldiers and the politicians.

"This time around there is absolute determination to maintain that unity. The decommissioning scenario, for example, was intended to fragment this and it was a deeply frustrating brake on progress. But at the end of the day you had to carry your own support base. And if anything we are here today where we are because that task was carried out successfully. What we have done is to use time against an attritional backdrop to develop politically."

Ever a child of dramatic events, Magee was one of the first to profit from the peace process. On the day after the ceasefire was announced, as he sat in the SSU watching events unfold on television on the Falls Road, a prison officer entered the room. "He was smiling," says Magee. "'Get your things packed, Pat,' he said, 'you are going back to Ireland'."

Surreal to the end, Magee and other republican prisoners were handcuffed and flown to Belfast on a specially chartered aircraft with a huge armed security detail. On arrival the RUC loaded them into the back of a security van and drove them rather casually to Maghaberry Prison.

The time of his release, some 14 months ago, put huge pressure on the rewriting of his thesis. He knew once he got out it would be hugely difficult to concentrate on it. He now sees his life in terms of teaching or further study. His passion is books, and prison allowed him to develop huge powers of concentration. He is keener to talk about his status as an academic than his part as an activist. His PhD examined the impact on the popular novel of events in the North.

Magee explains that there have been about 500 popular novels over 30 years written out of the troubles, more than 50 of them by journalists.

"Many of them are household names: Gerald Seymour, Tom Clancy, even Robin Moore of The French Connection and Green Beret fame. Douglas Hurd, Chapman Pincher and hundreds of others tried their hand. My thesis looked at them as fictional representations of factual events. The IRA is always 'the big bad other' in a modern morality tale.

"In Seymour, for example, he pits the British and Irish protagonists against each other until at the end the British guy is always superior. In ways the books are more about deep-seated racist notions within the subtext of the British popular imagination than about understanding republicans."

'It struck me too that in terms of genre studies it's the old archetypal Wild West story being told all over again. The republicans are the Red Indians of course, and like the Red Indians they have no voice, they are not allowed to tell their story. But of course republicans are now writing their own fiction, people like Ronan Bennett and Danny Morrison."

But what does he think of contemporary Irish writers on the North? The late Brian Moore for example? Magee praises Moore's elegant style but finds him class-conscious, cold, detached and exhibiting the values of old nationalism.

In contrast he sings Seamus Deane's praises and what he calls his ability to break down myths to discover the past. "And that's something that we who have come out of the North are all presently engaged in doing."

What was his worst moment of all in the past 30 years? "My father's death in 1995," he says. "I had not seen a lot of him." The prison officer told him the news with the addendum that there was no prospect of parole to attend the funeral.

Magee took a judicial review over Michael Howard's refusal to grant compassionate parole but it failed. The IRA cessation was in place at the time but Howard was still taking a hard line.

But, as always, he showed them no emotion. "They are always looking for a weakness," he reflects, "and you must not show it to them. I was utterly shocked, actually physically affected in that the curious thing is that I seemed to slow down. I seemed to develop this infinite patience for small tasks. But my greatest consolation is that despite our not seeing each other for ten years when I was in prison, when I got a first class honours BA degree I sent him the parchment.

"He was dying at the time but at least he saw that part of me before he went. That was hugely important to me and I suspect to him as well. Incidentally, there were eight first class honours in that year's Open University BA results and two of them were republican prisoners." (The other was Mary McArdle).

On the day he was released he was determined to remain totally calm and take everything in. "I drove slowly through Belfast that day with my wife in the back of the car and we just held hands and said nothing. Nothing at all. I just wanted to be careful to take it all in, take every moment in. Belfast had changed and in ways it was a new landscape to me, but then everything changes."

At 49 Magee now begins the second half of an extraordinary life.

He seems undiminished by prison and it seems to have afforded him opportunities. He would like to teach but has no illusions about the problems that he would face with his record. He hopes that there will be an academic place for someone like him who has so much to tell and, one suspects, so much to give. His intellect is impressive and unusual in that it is honed out of remarkable experiences.

In that future he hopes violence is over forever and forcibly argues that with this process in place there is no part for it. He regrets the dissident republican approach and argues that they have misunderstood what the peace process has achieved.

Nor he argues is there any rationale in violence, particularly in the sort of political vacuum that could flow from their actions.

"Every generation of republicans has had to turn to violence, I would hope that now at last we can stand on our own feet and fight our corner politically. The potential is now there at last."

By way, perhaps, of a final flourish, he pauses and then looking directly at me says: "I have argued with you that the military campaign was necessary and equally now I would argue that it is no longer necessary. It's as simple as that. OK?"

Even from this short historical distance, it is evident that the dimensions of Brighton were understood better in the gut at the time and not the head. Were these the first of the big bangs before the door finally opened into our present landscape of possibility?

In this writer's imagination the dead on the Belfast street corners and the plastic bullet victims in the ghettos commingle with the Tory ruling class bloodied, screaming and frantic in their evening wear under collapsing Brighton chandeliers and stucco ceilings.

Sitting opposite me, the author of this revenge for the deaths of the hunger strikers gives the calm impression that he has long ago seen these ghastly images and that he has come to terms with his actions and their consequences. His discourse is logical but it is also cold and chilling.

His is one of the most extraordinary stories I have ever tried to write not least in recognising that for all its chameleon qualities it cannot have a happy ending for some who were involved in it. Even now certain chapters must remain unfinished until the passage of the years hopefully ameliorates the suffering and the pain; and there is much that Magee will not yet talk about.

But it is sufficient to recognise that this is the opening of a morality tale at the heart of the post-war debate about violence. It is also a saga about the savagery that can result when the British and the Irish resort to their base instincts. It is to be hoped that in its telling we will all learn never to be as foolish again.

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