Brighton bomb memories
How the world has changed since I was bizarrely accused of involvement in the IRA attack on the Tory cabinet 25 years ago this week.
Seeing as the Eighties are apparently in fashion again, let’s go back just once more to the political battles of 1984. Earlier this year, I wrote about the historic miners’ strike of that year, including my bit part, and the contrasts between that mighty struggle and the small-minded politics of today. This week we pass another 1984 milestone, with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Brighton bombing – and of the time I was accused of involvement in the IRA attack on the Tory government.
At the time I was the youthful organiser of the Irish Freedom Movement (IFM), a British-based solidarity campaign that organised in support of Irish unity and against the low-intensity war that the British state was then waging in Northern Ireland, around the snappy demands ‘Troops Out Now!’ and ‘Self-Determination for the Irish people!’. At the Tory Party conference in Brighton on 10 October 1984, we held a protest against the Thatcher government’s militaristic policies in Northern Ireland, focused on the demand for political status for Irish republican prisoners. This had been the issue at the heart of the 1981 Hunger Strikes in which 10 republican prisoners died. We in the IFM saw recognising these people as political prisoners, rather than branding them as ordinary criminals, as an important step towards admitting that Britain was then involved in a colonial-style war in Ireland against a republican movement with popular support.
So we went down to Brighton with our placards and banners and a recently released republican prisoner, and protested outside the Tory conference. They were not too pleased to see us, and some delegates threw coins at us, all of which went into the IFM’s empty coffers. Then we went along the seafront to protest in a meeting organised by the right-wing Monday Club and addressed by James Molyneux, the leader of the traditional bastion of Ulster loyalism, the Official Unionist Party, where person or persons unknown dropped a stink bomb. Monday Club members responded in kind, hurling insults and beer glasses. All good knockabout stuff. Then we went home. Like the song says, it was acceptable in the Eighties.
In the middle of the following night, however, the Irish Republican Army launched a rather more forceful and audacious protest about the Thatcher government’s ruthless treatment of the republican hunger-strikers. Just before 3am on 12 October, a bomb that had been concealed behind a bath panel months before blew apart the front of Brighton’s Grand Hotel, where the top Conservatives were staying. Five people were killed, including leading Tory MP Sir Anthony Berry. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher barely avoided being blown up, while cabinet member Norman Tebbit was badly injured, along with his wife.
While the Tories were being brought out of the rubble, the political class and media immediately united to condemn the bombing as an ‘attack on democracy’ and to demand that the perpetrators be hanged, drawn and quartered. As the search for whipping boys intensified, some eyes alighted on the IFM.
See, before our protest I had penned a press release which, employing a clunkingly obvious play on words, promised we were ‘going to Rock the Tories in Brighton’ (geddit?). This statement had been picked up and reported verbatim earlier that week in the Andersonstown News, the leading local newspaper in republican West Belfast. After the Brighton bomb exploded across the world, Peter Robinson – then an MP for the Reverend Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, these days First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive – unearthed this report and claimed my threat to ‘rock the Tories’ meant that there must have been pre-knowledge of the planned attack.
Such was the febrile atmosphere after Brighton that Robinson’s bizarre allegation was soon picked up in the British media, and notably splashed across the front page of the London Evening Standard. Our little protest had now been depicted as some sort of warning shot, the IFM cast in the role of proxy IRA bombers, a public press release held up as evidence of involvement in the best-hidden most secretive plot in memory. Our offices in Brixton were briefly besieged by the media, which I recall was a slight problem since the Irish republican ex-prisoner from the protest was on the premises and had to be sneaked out of the rear window. We hastily convened a press conference to deny all the allegations and denounce the attempted stitch-up by supporters of the British state, after which the bandwagon moved on to find somebody else to pillory. But I still didn’t sleep at home for a few nights.
The IRA attack on the heart of the British government, and the frenetic reactions to it in which I and my old comrades were momentarily caught up, provide a snapshot of the high-tempo politics of the times, when life-and death conflicts were being fought out from the Yorkshire coalfields to the inner-cities of Britain and the lanes of Northern Ireland. The contrast with the dead-end political debates of today is telling.
The British establishment recognised the IRA’s struggle to break up the United Kingdom as a mortal threat to its authority. The IRA statement after Brighton – ‘Remember, we only have to be lucky once; you have to be lucky always’ – was a chilling reminder of the gun pointed at the heart of the state. The reaction of the enraged and ruthless Thatcher government was to intensify its war in Northern Ireland, the cutting edge of which was a shoot-to-kill policy against republican activists. I have vivid memories of the day a year or so later when I went over to County Derry to report on the funeral of a Catholic teenager shot dead after innocently wandering into an SAS trap meant for somebody else. (After the funeral I was threatened with being shot by republicans who thought I looked too much like an undercover soldier, then rescued by republicans who wisely decided that anybody who looked that much like one couldn’t be one, but that is another story.) This intensified war on Irish republicanism was the precursor to the ‘peace process’ in Northern Ireland.
In Britain, too, there was a widespread recognition that something crucial was at stake in the struggles of 1984. Previous IRA bombings in Britain were met with almost-total public condemnation and revulsion. Brighton was different. ‘Pity they didn’t get Thatcher’ was a fairly common reaction in working-class communities – or as one ex-miner put it to me in Pontefract bus station, ‘See what those Irish bastards did? They fucking missed her!’ These reactions had little to do with any outburst of sympathy for the IRA. Rather, they came in the context of rising political animosity towards the Thatcher regime amid the bitter and violent battles over the miners’ strike, which had then been raging for more than six months and had polarised opinion in the country.
By contrast, today the British authorities are faced with a few nihilistic terrorists who represent nobody, who do not bomb ruling party conferences or fire homemade mortars at Downing Street, as the IRA later did, but instead plot attacks on nightclubs, shopping centres and civilian airliners. Yet such is the loss of nerve and direction in the establishment that their response has been to reorganise the life of society in the name of the ‘war on terror’ in ways they would never have considered in the midst of a real war against an identifiable foe 25 years ago.
At the same time, in the edgeless blancmange of modern politics there is a powerful tendency to bury or blur real conflicts of interest, past and present, and avoid anything as unpleasant as an all-out fight. Hence the Brighton bomber himself, Patrick Magee, is today due to go to the House of Commons for an event organised jointly by something called the Forgiveness Project and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues. Such events look like symptoms not only of the way that the Irish struggle itself has petered out into the endless bureaucratic machinations of the peace process – a process which, as Brendan O’Neill pointed out yesterday, has been far from empowering for the communities of Northern Ireland (see How Hillary became Empress of Ireland); but also of the extent to which political life in Britain more broadly has been stripped of any clear-cut conflicts over issues of principle and sovereignty.
As an old Marxist I never thought I would find myself agreeing with anything that Norman, now Lord, Tebbit might say. But there is something more than mere personal venom in his bitter observations that the more empathetic treatment of a former IRA bomber such as Magee is symptomatic of a lack of resolve in modern British society. Magee himself, an unrepentant republican, says that ‘Norman Tebbit’s crusade against me is totally understandable – his wife is in a wheelchair. Why should he have an obligation to forgive?’ Yet in British politics, Tebbit’s attempt to stick to traditional Tory principles and political prejudices has seen him isolated even within the Conservative Party.
None of this should suggest that the likes of me are somehow nostalgic for the politics of 1984 or see the Eighties as some sort of golden age. They were far from that, and the struggles people found themselves caught up in were grim. Indeed, the beginning of the political wasteland to come was already evident even in the heat of those struggles. Hence the government’s other panicky response to Brighton was to impose a ‘ring of steel’ around the political class, a security system that sealed it off from the public and meant that unsanctioned protests like our intervention at the Tory conference would not happen again. Twenty-five years later, government ministers seem unwilling to walk down a normal street without armed police and a stab vest.
And as some of us observed at the time, the anti-Tory response to the bombing among sections of the British public had both positive and negative aspects. It revealed the rise of a healthy antagonism towards the authoritarian state in the light of the miners’ strike and the inner-city riots. Yet it also showed the growing mood of pessimism and fatalism among radical-minded people, with the looming defeat of the miners and the working-class movement. It was almost as if some had concluded that a bomb was the only way to beat Thatcher. Twenty-five years later, we seem to have lost much of the anti-state feeling – indeed it is now routine for self-styled radicals to call on the state to intervene more – while the mood of fatalism about the prospects for fundamental political change has become overwhelming.
The Eighties have gone and, unlike in film or fashion, they are not coming back in the world of politics. Those industrial struggles in Britain and military conflicts in Ireland are over. But we do need to draw some new lines in the sand, around some human-centred principles that are worth fighting for today, whether to do with liberty or progress or economic growth. And if things are to change for the better we need to reassert the idea of people fighting for their interests against those who oppose us, rather than platitudes about all being in it together.
Twenty-five years after that bomb blew the sleepy Tories out of their hotel in Brighton, where are the explosive politics that could blow our society out of its sloth?
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Previously on spiked
Brendan O’Neill described the Real IRA bombings of March 2009 as the work of the Zombie IRA. He also called Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams the ghosts of politics past and discussed the admission of government collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. Kevin Rooney described the IRA’s shift from insurgency to identity and railed against the way politics is being written out of the history of the conflict. Chris Gilligan revealed the impact of therapy culture on Northern Ireland’s police. Or read more at spiked issue Ireland.