“Killing Thatcher. The IRA, the Manhunt and the Long War on the Crown” by Rory Carroll (published by Mudlark)

’Iron Lady’ in luck as hotel bomb kills, destroys

The Irish Republican Army’s attempt to assassinate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher very nearly succeeded when their bomb exploded in the Grand Hotel, Brighton, at 2.54am on October 12, 1984, the final day of the Conservative Party annual conference. Author Carroll profiles the protagonists and recounts the events surrounding the plot and its aftermath, a tale so enthralling that you’d swear it was a damn good novel.
17. June 2023 8:15

Five people were killed, dozens were injured and Thatcher narrowly missed being sliced to pieces as the hotel was badly damaged in the attempt to murder the Iron Lady and decimate her Cabinet. The explosion is described as the most daring conspiracy against the Crown since the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London on November 5, 1605.

Carroll’s book is brilliant, turning what is after all a piece of political history into an absolute page-turner, and there are some 340 of them to savour. Putting things into context, 1984 was the 15th year of the Troubles, a word described by the author as “that odd euphemism for sporadic killing”. He was a 12-year-old kid at the time living with his family in Dublin, and he says they “were grimly accustomed to reports of attacks on soldiers, police, and civilians”. More than 2500 lives had been lost so far.

Carroll, who is now the Irish correspoindent of the UK newspaper the Guardian, offers compact summaries of the savagery and bloodletting on both sides without over-writing. His balance is just right and he doesn’t weigh down the narrative with unnecessary details (well, just a few minor ones).

As we learn, the insurgency by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to end British rule in Northern Ireland and unite its six counties with the Republic of Ireland in the south was the latest iteration of a centuries-old conflict between Irish rebels and their dominant British neighbour.

In 1921 an earlier version of the IRA had expelled the British from 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties, thus establishing the republic ruled from Dublin. The 800,000 Protestants of Northern Ireland flew the Union Jack and ruled over the 450,000 Catholics who had ended up on the wrong side of the new border. In 1969 police savagely beat Catholics when, inspired by the US civil rights movement, they marched to end discrimination.

Riots followed, with clashes between religious mobs, streets in flames and Catholic flights to the republic. Brtain deployed its Army. A revived IRA began bombings and shootings in a war of liberation to end British rule and unite Ireland. The IRA became an effective guerrilla force, and assassinated Louis Mountbatten, cousin of Queen Elizabeth II and mentor to Prince Philip and Prince Charles, on August 27, 1979.

The same day, a British Army convoy was ambushed at Narrow Water in Northern Ireland, with a roadside fertiliser bomb killing 18 paratroopers, the regiment’s worst loss of life since World War II. But Margaret Thatcher, who had become Prime Minister in May 1979, aged 53, refused to give IRA prisoners political or prisoner of war status. “A crime is a crime is a crime,” she declared, branding them common criminals like burglars, rapists, murderers.

Carroll’s engrossing acount tells how Thatcher rose from humble origins as a grocer’s daughter in the English market town of Grantham to the first female head of a European government in a male-dominated world. Initially she had little interest in the Ireland problem until the twin killings on August 27, after which she went on a whirlwind research visit to Northern Ireland that determined her to crush the IRA.

It was a  belligerent Cold War speech about the Soviet Union that prompted the Red Army newspaper to nickname Thatcher the Iron Lady, and her hard-line policies included ensuring that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom, period.

Ten prisoners starved themselves to death in 1981 rather than be labelled criminals, and the IRA governing body decided to kill her, the villain, Thatcher, life snatcher. In one of his illuminating touches, author Carroll gives a rather gruesome account of the excrutiatingly painful stages of the deterioration of a starved body before merciful death.

Enter IRA member Patrick Joseph Magee, born 1951, who in Belfast in 1972 joined the secret army confronting the might of the British state. His activities earned him two and a half years in Long Kesh detention camp, and within an hour of his release he reported to the IRA for “active service”. He had experience of England, his family having lived in Norwich when he was young.

Magee became a bomb maker, receiving a crash course in nail bombs, car bombs, incendiaries and other devices.  Gelignite was in short supply so the IRA made its own lethal mix of fertiliser and diesel oil. “Nailers” entailed putting a stick of gelignite in a beer can with six-inch nails.

Again, the players in this drama are well fleshed out, and we read an absorbing account of the deadly battle of wills between the British bomb disposal experts and their IRA opponents, each trying to outsmart the other. Peter Gurney, 50, for instance, of the Explosives Section of the Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorist Branch, initially had a knife, screwdrivers, wire cutters and a small X-ray machine to defuse and destroy bombs.

The bomb disposal men had body armour and a helmet but 20 of them died in Northern Ireland, as the IRA came up with new devices and tactics in the lethal hide-and-seek contest.The bombers took their offensive to Britain, and an IRA booby trap killed bomb disposal man Ken Howorth in the basement of a Wimpey’s restaurant in Oxford Street, London, his massive injuries including losing both arms.

On September 15, 1984, a smartly dressed Magee checked into the stately Grand Hotel, dominant on the Brighton seafront for 120 years. He used the pseudonym Roy Walsh, paid upfront for three nights and was given Room 629 with a vista of the English Channel. The bomb he assembled and híd in the panel under the bath contained commercial nitroglycerine-based gelignite timed to explode in 24 days, six hours and 36 minutes.

When it went off at 2.54am on October 12, there had been no IRA warning this time. Anyone other than the Conservatives filling the hotel was considered a legitimate target – hotel staff, tourists, journalists – simply unfortunates in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Thatcher occupied the Napoleon Suite on the first of the eight floors. The explosion toppled one of the Grand’s chimney stacks on the roof, which “Like a monstrous guillotine, it sliced through concrete, steel, and wood, all the way to the ground floor. What saved Thatcher was the path it took. It toppled through the blast hole, then veered sideways and plunged down a vertical stack of rooms with numbers ending in 8. It merely clipped those rooms, including Thatcher’s Napoleon Suite, with numbers ending in 9”.

Had the chimney stack fallen a slightly different way, the tons of debris could have smashed into her suite and flattened the lounge, where Thatcher was working. Her bathroom, where she had been two minutes earlier, was shattered. Magee was 600 miles away in Cork, near Ireland’s Atlantic coast, unable to sleep as he awaited news.

Carroll details the death and destruction, the rescues and Thatcher’s brave response. But perhaps the most gripping part of the book is the manhunt that began with no intelligence, no suspects and no leads, but finally tracked down and captured Magee after he had been  identified using the flimsiest of clues.

Simply a terrific read.

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