12th October, 1985. The day that Margaret Thatcher almost died.
Thirty-six years ago today, the Provisional IRA successfully planted and detonated inside Brighton’s Grand Hotel. The venue was specifically targeted because the then British PM Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet were booked in as guests for the Conservative Party conference that year.
The bomb, which had been planted a few weeks earlier in room 629, five floors above Thatcher’s suite, exploded at 2:54 am, bringing down a five-ton chimney stack, crashing down through the floors into the basement and leaving a gaping hole in the hotel’s facade. Thatcher narrowly escaped death and injury as it was alleged that she was working on the speech she was due to deliver the following day in the suite’s sitting room. Rumours continue to this day that Thatcher was actually sitting on the toilet at the time of the explosion but, whilst this is of course amusing, it is also unlikely; the bathroom bore the brunt of the blast, leaving the sitting room and bedroom of the suite untouched.
Less fortunate than Thatcher and her husband Denis, were five Conservatives – the Deputy Chief Whip, Sir Anthony Berry, Eric Taylor the chair of the North West Conservative Party, Lady Jeanne Shattock, wife of Sir Gordon Shattock, the chair of the Western Area Conservative Party, Lady Muriel Maclean, wife of Sir Donald Maclean, the President of the Scottish Conservatives, and the wife of Chief Whip John Wakeham, Roberta Wakeham – all of whom were killed in the explosion. A further thirty-one people were injured and several were permanently disabled, including the MP for Wyre, Walter Clegg, and Margaret Tebbit, President of the Board of Trade and wife of the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Norman Tebbit, who was also injured that day.
The bomb, which was made up of twenty pounds of explosives, considered to be small by IRA standards, and fitted with a long-delay timer, destroyed a large section of the Victorian hotel’s front. Following the attack and the news that Thatcher had survived, the IRA released the following statement:
“Mrs Thatcher will now realise that Britain cannot occupy our country and torture our prisoners and shoot our people in their own streets and get away with it. 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 more war”
In contrast Thatcher, who began the following day with the next session of conference at 9:30 am as scheduled, used her speech to argue that the assassination attempt was “an attempt to cripple Her Majesty’s democratically elected Government”, adding “The fact that we are gathered here now—shocked, but composed and determined—is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail”
The IRA’s audacious attempt on Thatcher’s life was undertaken by volunteer Patrick Magee, who checked into the Grand on the weekend of 14–17 September 1984 under the pseudonym of Roy Walsh. Magee planted the bomb under the bath beneath his room, wrapping it in cling film to avoid detection from the sniffer dogs during the security services’ inspection ahead of the Conservative conference. Once investigators had located the source of the blast, they uncovered the alias and began trailing Magee for several months, finally making their arrest in Glasgow on 24th June, 1985. Magee refused to answer questions during his interrogation, but a fingerprint on a registration card recovered from the hotel ruins was enough to convict him in September that same year. Found guilty of planting the bomb, detonating it, and of five counts of murder, Magee was given eight life sentences. However, in 1999 he was released from prison after fourteen years in 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Shortly after his release, Magee spoke of his mission, stating “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?
Though arguably a failure for the IRA, the events of 12th October, 1985 were a game-changer. The most notable and daring attempt on the government of the day since the gunpowder plot of 1605, it proved that even the most protected members of the British establishment were not immune from attack and security has been significantly ramped up ever since as a result.