“At 2.54 a.m. on Friday, 12 October 1984, a bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel, Brighton, killing four people and injuring thirty-four others. One of the injured died five weeks later. I planted the bomb. I did so as a volunteer in an IRA active service unit committed to the continuing, long-term strategy of taking the war to England.”
“On 24 November 2000, sixteen years after the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton and seventeen months after my release I sat down and talked with Joanna Berry, whose father, the Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry, was one of the five people killed.”
The first of these stark quotes appears on page 115 of Patrick Magee’s book, the second on page 172. Before the first quote he describes his life in Belfast and England in the time leading up to the bombing. His background was of poverty and discrimination – Magee’s father, for example, had to leave the local shipyard when it was discovered he was a Catholic. The family moved to and fro from Ireland for want of work, with Patrick becoming something of a tearaway teenager. Eventually he is drawn into the Republican movement. He describes the treatment of the Catholic population in the north, the pogroms, the shoot-to-kill policies of the RUC and the British Army – everything that drove him to the Brighton bombing. The most striking incident was when he was picked up by the state forces and dumped in an area controlled by Loyalist paramilitaries as if some kind of present for them.
We then hear of his time in prison. Beatings had always been a regular part of being scooped up by the forces but, ironically his spell in the most secure part of Leicester Prison (sentenced to eight life terms for the Brighton bomb) brought humane treatment and the start of his route through the Open University prison education system.
I do not, by this review, wish to skirt over what the active service units of the IRA did. Nor does he, “Terrible things had happened. We had killed innocent civilians. One thinks of Birmingham; of La Mon.” And Magee “believed absolutely, as I still do to this day, that the armed struggle was our only option.” He still believes that the violence of the oppressed cannot be compared to that of the oppressor. And, by God, the oppressor was violent. I’m typing this on the day that the it was announced in a coroner’s report that the ten people killed by the British Army at Ballymurphy in August in August 1971 were murdered (www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/may/11/inquest-to-report-on-alleged-killings-by-british-soldiers-in-ballymurphy
The book is introduced by Joanna (Jo) Berry, whose father was among those killed at Brighton. Astonishingly, Jo is a cousin of Princess Diana. Jo and Patrick’s combined story forms the second half of the book. She wanted to meet him, to understand his motives and to explain what the killing had meant to her. She wanted to build bridges… and what a way to do it. The report of their first meeting merits re-reading. By now Magee had been released on license under the Good Friday Agreement. The two talked for three hours, during which she made it clear she understood the role of the British in Ireland, but Magee also began to see her father in his full humanity. Magee expressed his regret he had killed her father. Berry said “I’m glad it was you.” This left Magee floundering, what could it mean?
You can read what this meant, but in due course and not without difficulty they sought reconciliation. They talked, were filmed, spoke at meetings, fell out, were reconciled all on the difficult path towards a wider reconciliation, understanding and respect. Not that any of it was easy. Magee and Berry found themselves traduced in the press. On one awful occasion he was invited to speak at an event for people who had lost family to the IRA. A tough gig when the organisers had not told the group he was coming. He has made sure since then it would never happen again.
The last part of the book, strangely, is the least interesting as they go on the road together, where they spoke and what were the responses.Though perhaps this is because the tension, the grimness and the memories of the period of the shooting war early on in the book were so raw. It is, however, a remarkable story and a remarkable book.