by Danny Morrison (for the Andersonstown News)
Twenty years ago, in the early hours of tomorrow morning, 12 October, a 100lbs bomb exploded inside the Grand Hotel in Brighton. It had been planted by the IRA some weeks earlier using a long-delay timing device and it was aimed at Margaret Thatcher and senior Tories who were staying at the hotel during the Conservative Party conference.
Five people lost their lives and many others were seriously injured, some for life.
Had you been a Martian who just happened to land in England in the aftermath of the explosion, read the newspapers and listened to British television and radio you would have found it difficult if not impossible to work out the real reason, or an explanation, for the bombing.
Yes, it was the IRA (or ‘the Irish’, as some tabloids put it); yes, it had something vaguely to do with Ireland - or maybe even the miners who were then on strike; but as for an accurate understanding of why the IRA would carry out such an attack the British public, and visiting Martians, were left generally uninformed.
For years the British media perpetuated the stereotype of ‘the fighting Irish’ and presented the conflict here as an insoluble, irrational, sectarian squabble, which would have been far worse had it not been for the courageous peace-keeping efforts of the British army. That perception allowed successive governments great latitude in their actions without having to be concerned about domestic objections or reservations.
Thus, British governments felt they could do what they pleased: curfew areas, intern nationalists without charge or trial, shoot down peaceful demonstrators, torture prisoners, assassinate opponents, and collude with loyalist paramilitaries, etc., given that there was no public opinion to stop them.
Four weeks ago BBC’s Panorama broadcast a two-part documentary on the Brighton bombing. It was made by the veteran journalist and Irish specialist, Peter Taylor, who has a consistent track record of covering the North over a quarter of a century. I have often taken issue with the emphasis of his programmes and their conclusions, but could never argue with his integrity, his genuine interest and the fact that some of his more important documentaries – for example, on RUC interrogation methods or on the campaign for political status – caused London and the NIO major displeasure, helped raise awareness and even redress desperate situations.
Pat Magee, who carried out the Brighton bombing, and myself, agreed to participate in the programme. I felt that it was an important opportunity to mark and explore the reasons for the bombing, the first major (and unprecedented) attack on a British prime minister and the governing party in the history of 200 years of Irish republicanism.
However, when the programme was broadcast I was very disappointed. Peter Taylor’s interview with Pat Magee was certainly compelling, something even The Mail on Sunday conceded:
“These were not the rantings of a murderer, as IRA members have constantly been dubbed: he spoke the logic of a soldier who went to war as the result of an ‘enemy’ (Thatcher and her government) which refused to listen to his country… Whether you agree with him or not, the reason that anyone goes to war is that they believe the opposition is wrong.”
In the programme Pat explained that Thatcher “came into office determined to pursue a hard military line” and that “the buck stopped with her”. I described her as “reviled, very bitter, ignorant and intransigent” and that as far as republicans were concerned she “epitomised evil”.
I said that the bombing sent a grim message to the establishment that there was a heavy price to be paid for oppressing people. I said the bombing was a direct response to 1981, the hunger strike and what our community experienced under Thatcher. I went into detail in this regard but these details were not broadcast.
Whereas Panorama dealt – and was entitled to deal - at considerable length with the experiences of those who suffered at the hands of the IRA, it not once depicted any of the incidents in Ireland that Pat Magee, generally, and I, specifically, referred to. For example, a short interview with a relative of Julie Livingstone or Carol Anne Kelly, two children killed by plastic bullets, or some footage – even just ten seconds long – of the vicious attacks on demonstrators would have represented powerful images to the British viewer of what was done to us in their name and what helped motivate the IRA. Such footage, indeed, would have provided some balance.
Under the peace process we inevitably adopt a different mindset, accentuating the positive, aspiring towards progress and better times ahead. We would probably accept an apology from Britain – if one were forthcoming. But before the ceasefire the many killings of innocent civilians by the British, the mistreatment of an entire community, cried out for vengeance. Those closest to Thatcher’s militarist policies, her cheer leaders, those apologists for her Irish policy, were to be found among the Tory faithful, none of whom, as far as I know, ever demurred from what Thatcher commissioned.
Back in 1984 it was easy, given the media’s conditioning of the British public, to portray the Brighton bombing as an attack on ‘democracy’ – the same description attached to all insurgencies against British forces anywhere in the world. It didn’t matter if nobody in India, Malaya, Cyprus, Aden or Kenya, to name a few places, had ever elected the British government which militarily enforced its unpopular rule – all their freedom struggles were attacks on ‘democracy’. Nobody else’s vote, nobody else’s opinion, nobody else’s rights counted – until, that is, the wrath of the people was exercised and put manners on the colonial power.
This anniversary reminds us that the attitudes we had back in 1984 after the hunger strike and its aftermath, the feelings of anger and frustration, the legitimacy of our emotions, was expressed in a justified wrath carried out by the IRA which, despite Thatcher’s bluster the following morning at the podium, put some manners on her and her colonial power.