Patrick Magee takes the floor looking more suited to lecturing on philosophy or English than blowing up buildings. Dressed in a dark brown blazer, black pants, a light grey shirt unbuttoned at the top and thin-rimmed spectacles, and walking with the help of a cane, Magee is in Maastricht to give a talk as part of the university’s Ambassador Lecture Series. Best known as the ‘Brighton Bomber’, it was he who, in 1984, planted a bomb inside Brighton’s Grand Hotel which killed five people and injured over 30 more. It missed Magee’s primary target, then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Magee thought himself a pacifist as a young man, he explains, his calm, slightly cracked voice still thick with a Belfast twang. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement in the USA, he believed that empathy, understanding and the good in people could inspire positive change for everyone. Having growing up in Norwich, he wanted to witness Operation Demetrius, the British army’s persecution and internment of IRA members, and the wider conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, for himself. When he returned to Belfast as a 20-year-old, he stepped into a world of burned out buses and makeshift barriers, and the thick smell of gunpowder in the air. Patrick Magee, the pacifist, decided then to join the IRA.
Magee was interned by the British in 1973. After his release two and a half years later, he re-joined the IRA. But by 1980 he had begun to feel different about his role in saving Ireland. “I was burned out”, he says. He felt himself a danger to the people around him, and left the conflict behind to make a new life for himself and his family in the Netherlands. He reflects upon this period with much fondness: in the Netherlands there were decent jobs, educational prospects for his children, and he even rediscovered his passion for art. But this proved to be more a momentary respite than a clean break. Magee was arrested on terror charges and spent four months in solitary confinement. Though he was again released, he knew that MI6 would be hot on his heels for his involvement in the conflict back home. Fearing re-arrest and extradition, Magee returned to Northern Ireland.
Then, the thing that made him famous. Magee doesn’t dwell too long on reconstructing the events of that day – his talk is more about everything around the attack. Having been convicted in 1986 for the attack on the Grand Hotel and released in 1999 as part of the Good Friday Agreement (serving fourteen years of an initial ruling of eight life sentences, during which time he completed a PhD), Magee received a message from one Joanna Berry, the daughter of Anthony Berry, a Conservative MP Magee had killed in the attack. Berry wished to talk to Magee in person.
“I think at that point [meeting Berry] I was never more scared in my life. The enormity of what I was about to do suddenly hit home,” recalls Magee. He spent three hours with Berry, describing to her the toxic political backdrop against which he’d carried out the attack. To his great surprise, she listened to him. Nobody, he says, wanted to hear his story – not the government, not the media, not even the Church. But Berry did, and her willingness to hear Magee out stunned him.
Magee had several meetings with Berry. As they became better acquainted, he found her to be a kind-hearted, intelligent woman with a remarkable capacity for understanding. But she loved and missed her father deeply, and, reasoning that she must have inherited her good nature at least in part from him, Magee came to a painful realisation. “I killed a fine human being,” he tells the room solemnly. Responding to a question from an audience member, he says that had he known Joanna Berry prior to October 1984, he would never have carried out the attack. “But somebody else might have,” he adds. When prodded further by another audience member on whether he regrets his actions, Magee is divided, sympathetic to those he killed and hurt but ideologically resolute. “I can’t say I’m sorry because, in full conscience, I stand [by] my actions,” he says.
Such a bold statement seems to stick in the throats of some in the room. One audience member flippantly asks Magee if he would do it again, which draws mocking laughter from some in the hall. “That’s a trite question,” says Magee, visibly angered. There’s an awkward hush, scattered murmurs. “Why are the fingers pointed at little people who choose to take up arms in defence and not at governments who do the same thing?” protests Magee.
The man who will forever be known as the Brighton Bomber insists that violence was always his last resort. He uses his platform to stress instead the need for conversation between would-be enemies. In addition to those he wronged, he says he would welcome the opportunity to talk to the soldiers who tortured him while he was imprisoned by the British. “I bear no ill will toward any of the people I was in conflict with. I came out the other side – and a lot of people didn’t – so I’m grateful for that,” he says. “But we need to have these dialogues.”
This lecture took place at Maastricht University on 10 March, 2015