Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1987.

(British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher)

A few weeks ago, former President Bill Clinton visited Northern Ireland in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that mostly ended the violence of the period known as “The Troubles” that had prevailed since the 1960s.  Clinton’s administration helped negotiate a multi-party agreement between most of Northern Ireland’s political parties, and the British-Irish Agreement between the British and Irish governments.  To this day the agreements have been held with a minimum of violence, but decades of ill-will between all sides and the January 2020 Brexit Agreement has created a series of obstacles which at times makes the situation tenuous.

For years, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its splinter groups resorted to violence to achieve an independent republic free of British rule.  One of the most violent attacks occurred on October 12, 1984, with an assassination attempt against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  The attack perpetrated by the IRA is detailed in a new book by Dublin journalist Rory Carroll, THERE WILL BE FIRE: MARGARET THATCHER, THE IRA, AND TWO MINUTES THAT CHANGED HISTORY.  The monograph offers an in depth account of the attempted assassination, as well as the manhunt it precipitated.  Carroll’s work also presents insights into how the perpetrators behind the attack were caught.

Thatcher had been staying at the Grand Hotel in the English seaside resort of Brighton for the 1984 Conservative Party Conference when a timer bomb exploded in the early hours of October 12. While Thatcher and her Cabinet ministers escaped with their lives, five people were killed in the blast, and over thirty were injured.

(Patrick Magee)

The IRA claimed responsibility for the bombing the next day, threatening further assassination attempts in their statement: “Mrs. Thatcher will now realize 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.”

The above quote according to Carroll rattled Thatcher who became convinced she would be successfully targeted in the future.  It appears she was deeply troubled despite the aura of the “Iron Lady” that she tried to project. 

At times Carroll writes like a novelist creating a political thriller.  He takes the reader through each step that leads to the assassination attempt.  He describes the important personalities involved, the background history that led up to the attempt to kill Thatcher, the process the IRA and it’s England Department went through in developing their strategy, the actual construction of the bomb, the explosion that destroyed the Grand Hotel, and the investigation that followed.  In each instance Carroll writes clearly and is able to draw the reader’s interest as if the story were fiction, but as we know it actually occurred.

Thatcher deplored the Irish Revolution that sought a “free state.”  Despite the approach by police against any Irish demonstration, treatment of prisoners, and an overall policy of discrimination, Thatcher focused on her plan to revolutionize the English economy and tried to ignore her Irish problem.  Her view was that the IRA, Provos, England Department or anyone who supported the cause were criminals and should be treated as such.  They were no longer political prisoners.  The labeling of the IRA as “criminal” was hated by its leadership because they needed to be considered as a political problem for its own legitimacy against British colonialism.

Gerry Adams

(Gerry Adams)

The use of hunger strikes by the IRA became an effective tool to raise awareness of the cause.  In October 1981 after a prison hunger strike that resulted in the death of Bobby Sands who was elected to Parliament while imprisoned, reflected public and worldwide support.  Ten would starve to death and according to Carroll, Thatcher refused to budge.  Three days after the hunger strike ended, the government granted de facto special status to H-Block prisoners, but it was too late as a boiling rage convulsed the republican movement.  Marchs turned into riots and it “congealed into a hatred of Thatcher, a visceral, personal hatred no British leader had evoked since Oliver Cromwell centuries earlier.” For Republicans, Thatcher was a murderer and revenge was the operative word.

From this point on Carroll describes how the IRA/England Department went about trying to secure their revenge.  In doing so he develops a series of mini biographies of the important characters.  Of course, Thatcher is discussed from a number of angles with an analysis that takes the reader inside 10 Downing Street and her thought processes.  Peter Gurney, a fifty year old “expo” of the Explosive Section of the Metropolitan Police Anti-Terrorist Branch provides insights as to how “bomb” experts went about tracking down a given bomb and how to defuse and use it in an investigation.  David Tadd, the Head of Fingerprinting at Scotland Yard’s Anti-Terrorist Branch plays a key role in identifying the bomber.  Joe Cahill, an IRA fundraiser who successfully raised money and equipment among American Irish gangsters like Whitey Bulger and Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi.  He excelled at donor relations, fiscal management, and gun running.  Patrick Ryan, a former Catholic priest was the linchpin of the IRA’s global supply network who laundered money and smuggled weapons that kept the Provos in business.  Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader who tried to develop a political strategy along with the use of violence.  A prominent character who Carroll can not reach a conclusion as to his culpability for the assassination attempt.  Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Reece, the Head of Sussex Criminal Investigation was in charge of capturing the bomber was out of his league as his experience was crime and domestic issues, not terrorism and bombings.  Lastly, Patrick Magee, one of the IRA’s best operatives and the man who put the bomb components together, planted the bomb at the Grand Hotel, and then escaped.

Carroll does yeoman’s work in setting the scene for the assassination attempt, describing in detail Magee’s bomb preparation.  Further he explores Thatcher’s obsession with her speech at the Conservative Party Conference at the hotel, and the actions of numerous participants at the conference and what their expectations were. 


(Peter Gurney)

Carroll’s reconstruction of the bomb blast and its path through the hotel detailing the impact and damage to people and property is surreal.  Carroll goes on to recreate the investigation narrowing down leads and possible evidence which led to Roy Walsh, a.k.a. Patrick Magee employing a registration card and a palm print as the key to identification.

Carroll has written a meticulous account of the Brighton bombing.  According to Sean O’Hagan in his The Guardian review the book is a “deftly constructed narrative punctuated by dramatic moments that often seem determined by the fickle hand of fate as much as by rigorous planning, intelligence gathering, and dogged adherence to a cause.  Elsewhere, Carroll’s prose possesses the steady, accumulative thrust of a police procedural drama, particularly as the investigation into the bombing gathers pace and the search for the perpetrator intensifies. Magee was caught after a frantic pursuit through Glasgow and served 14 years in prison before being released under the terms of the Good Friday agreement. In an interview in 2002, he said: “I regret that people were killed; I don’t regret the fact that I was involved in a struggle.”

In the end Thatcher escaped death, most probably through fate and a great deal of luck.  It is interesting to ponder what might have ensued had the assassination attempt been a success.  Perhaps there would be no Brexit and England would not have tilted to the right domestically and economically, but we will never know for sure.

*Sean O’Hagan. “Killing Thatcher by Rory Carroll review – meticulous account of the Brighton Bombing, The Guardian, April 23, 2023.

Margaret Thatcher speaks to the press for the first time after being elected Conservative Party Leader.

(British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s press conference)

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