Brighton bombing: The night that changed politics

How The Scotsman reported the bombing at the time. Picture: TSPL
How The Scotsman reported the bombing at the time. Picture: TSPL
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Five people died when an IRA bomb ripped Brighton’s Grand Hotel apart – 30 years on eye-witnesses tell Dani Garavelli their stories

THIRTY years ago today, an IRA bomb tore through the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Tory party conference, changing British politics forever.

Margaret Thatcher survived, going on, just hours later, to give one of the most remarkable and defiant speeches of her career, but five people lost their lives and 34 were injured. Among those trapped in the rubble were the then trade secretary Norman Tebbit and his wife, Margaret, who was paralysed.

The bomb had been planted four weeks earlier in the bathroom of room 629, which was being used by Donald Maclean, the then president of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Association, and his wife Muriel, and was detonated at 2.54am. Muriel was among the dead.

In September 1986, the man who planted the bomb, Patrick Magee was given eight life sentences, but he was released in 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

The atrocity shocked the country and made an indelible impression on all the politicians, activists, agents, press officers and journalists who were in the seaside town. To mark the 30th anniversary, we asked five of them to talk about their memories of the night and the impact it had on their lives.

Jim Naughtie

Now: Presenter of the Today programme. Then: Chief political correspondent for The Scotsman.

We all have poignant flashes of memory from Brighton, 1984. I was leaving the Grand Hotel through the revolving door with a couple of colleagues at a rather late hour when we were bid a cheery good night by a man coming back in, having evidently walked his dogs on the beach. It was Sir Anthony Berry, MP for Enfield South, and within an hour he was dead.

By that time I was asleep in another hotel along the sea front, and I’m afraid the truth is that I slept through the blast. By the time the word got round and someone banged on my door, the full horror of what had happened was obvious. The front of the hotel was crumpled up, like a rock fall on a mountainside, and they were starting to bring people out.

Rumours flew around about who might have perished. George Younger had been trapped in his room at the top of the building (adjacent to a blast hole that would have taken him down to the basement in one dreadful plunge) and it was an hour or two before we knew he’d survived. It was chaotic and draining, and there were some weird sights – Sir Keith Joseph wandering around in the M&S nightclothes that had been rustled up for everyone in case they weren’t decent.

Journalistically we were all energised and trying to find the best way of describing the scale of the attack. The day passed in a bit of a blur, and I remember still writing frantically on the train to London. We’d all reported IRA bombings in the seventies, but on the instant, everyone knew that this one changed everything. In those pre-9/11 days, security was an occasional irritation but nothing more. Suddenly, we were in a different world.

It was one of those days when people speak of a loss of innocence. We’re now living with such death and destruction that Brighton no longer seems as life-changing as it did at the time. But those of us who were there knew some of the dead and injured, and saw what it meant. It was a turning point and still is.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

Now: Life peer. Then: Chairman of the national union executive committee, a role which involved organising the Brighton conference with the then chairman of the party John Selwyn Gummer.

My room was next door to Mrs Thatcher’s. If you look at pictures of the hotel you will see that where the bomb went off was immediately above the front door. Margaret Thatcher’s rooms were to the left and the rooms my wife and I shared were to the left of that, so we weren’t in the direct line of fire. However, when the bomb went off, our windows shattered and we had to get out. The IRA had done their homework because at Blackpool the previous year, we had been immediately above the front door and Mrs Thatcher above us. The IRA obviously thought that by putting the bomb in the position they did, they would catch her. They didn’t, but they did succeed in blowing a lot of our friends to bits.

[The tradition was] for my wife and I to spend the Thursday night of party conferences with George Younger [then Secretary of State for Scotland] and his wife. They left our sitting room to go back to their own rooms shortly before the bomb went off. Their rooms were right at the top of the building and they had to be brought out using fire ladders. We had just gone to bed but we weren’t asleep. Although we were not injured, we knew something dreadful had happened so we put on whatever clothes we could find and climbed out over the low roof of the hotel and down a fire escape.

What happened next was that John [Gummer] sent for me and we went to the hotel next door where the president of the national union, Edward du Cann, was staying. Then we had the delightful job of going off and finding out exactly what was happening, talking to the police, talking to the hospital, talking to the journalists. Mrs Thatcher had been taken to Lewes police station because they were worried about a second bomb, but word came quickly that we were to get the conference going at 9.30am, which we did. I think the full effect of it didn’t hit us immediately. There were terrible tales coming through, but Mrs Thatcher was right: the show had to go on.

On the Friday night, everyone disappeared except for me and John and our wives. We had to stay on and pick up the pieces. That was the eerie time. That’s when it really started to hit quite hard. The husband of one of the women killed [Sir Gordon Shattock] was injured and in hospital and, of course, the press were very much wanting to see him, so we kept the reporters busy at the front door, while we got him away to Exeter by the back.

We didn’t leave Brighton until the Sunday night and then we had the funerals and memorial services to attend. I don’t think my wife and I really got over it for about three months; every time there was a banging door or something like that you were jumping round all over the place.

Jackson Carlaw

Now: Conservative MSP for the West of Scotland. Then: Chair of the Scottish Young Conservatives.

I was staying in a nearby guest house with some other people and I remember waking up suddenly and not knowing why. Though it was around 3am, there was a busker singing Ralph McTell’s Streets of London outside my window. At first, I thought that was what had woken me, but then I heard sirens in the distance. I instinctively knew something wasn’t right so I said: ‘I think we should get up and see what’s going on.’ We were at the Grand within 20 minutes of the blast and, like everyone else, we did anything we could to help, such as ferrying deck chairs up from the beach.

What amplified the shock was the realisation the bomb had been planted in the bathroom of Donald and Muriel Maclean. They were an immensely popular couple. We had been with them the night before at the Scottish reception. I can still see Muriel standing there with a tartan sash across her waist greeting the guests. Muriel did not die immediately, she held on for a month, which was horrendous. It took Donald around nine months to recover and he got a hero’s welcome when he attended the Scottish Conservative conference the following May. Donald was one of the people that had brought me on on the party and I remained close to him until his death in 2010.

A touching post-script is that the year before, on the 25th anniversary of the bombing, I was contacted by the fireman who had dug him out. They spoke on the phone and Donald was delighted as he had never been able to say ‘thank you’.

The day after the bomb is the stuff of legend. Mrs Thatcher was at her finest. Despite everything, she birled onto the platform, immaculate as always, and stood there, resolute. It did, I think, stiffen everybody’s resolve. But conferences were never the same again. Up until that point, the Prime Minister and senior cabinet ministers all mixed freely. Afterwards, everything became much more restricted. I stopped going for many years and I don’t enjoy them as much as I used to. Even the most junior minister seems to have two security guards walking round with them these days.

Nicholas Comfort

Now: Freelance writer. Then: Number two in the lobby for the Daily Telegraph. In between: Political editor for the Daily Record and special adviser to Helen Liddell.

Back then, security wasn’t anything like it is today, but there was a big police presence because it was during the miners’ strike and they thought there would be NUM protests. There had been some demos, but it never turned nasty and, by the Thursday night, we were relaxing. I had been along to the conference ball and had won a couple of bottles of wine in a raffle. I went into the Grand carrying them in a bag; there was no-one conducting searches. I had a drink with a friend. I left to go back to my hotel just after 2am, but he stayed on. Shortly after 3am, the phone rang and it was the hall porter. He said “The Grand’s been blown up” and I said “pull the other one”, hung up and went back to sleep. Luckily, he rang me again and this time I was dressed and downstairs in about 30 seconds.

When I got to the corner, about 400 yards down, the first thing I saw was a lot of people standing on the pavement looking out to sea. One of them was the friend I’d been drinking with. He was in shock and had a blanket round him. I turned and faced the hotel and saw the whole of the front had collapsed. Normally, it was all lit up, with the Grand in big letters – the neon sign – and fairy lights. All that had gone and instead it was dark and cavernous, although there were arc lights where the emergency services had starting digging. I had covered bombings in Birmingham so I knew what you did: you stayed out of the emergency services’ way, you tried to locate people you knew and, if you saw people who were looking for each other, you put them together. There was a protocol.

The politicians had been spirited away so it was mainly party activists outside. One man who had been in the bar; said there had been a loud noise, all the lights had gone out and everybody fell to the floor. Then, he said, one guy got up, went back to the bar and said: ‘Christ, that was a strong one. Give me another,’ so there was humour even at that moment.

At some point, I bumped into my boss and he couldn’t get into his hotel so we went back to mine and turned on the television. You watched the whole thing unfold and you knew it was big, but you didn’t think of it as history, particularly. Later, however, as I was walking back to the conference hall in the morning with John Biffen, he said: “This must be the greatest threat to the government since the Cato Street conspiracy” and it was like a thunder clap.

Fast forward a year to the Blackpool Tory conference: all the manhole covers were soldered down, every chicken delivered to the hotel was searched for explosives and the platform party travelled to the conference in an armoured bus. It also began the tradition of not mingling with everybody else. In previous years you could be a lobbyist or a constituent and you could simply bump into a minister on the seafront and give them your tuppence-worth. That stopped overnight.

Of course, you can’t see something like the Brighton bombing and not be moved, and I felt sorry for the people who were killed or injured, but it is that old thing about being battle-hardened. It doesn’t mean you don’t care but it’s something you move on from.

Quintin Jardine

Now: Author of Scottish crime novels. Then: Tory press officer.

Thursday night was when all the whooping it up went on and Maggie always did the rounds. One of the events was a conference ball just along the road. I had gone in earlier to check the photographers were behaving themselves and there had been an incident. One of the delegates had a heart attack just before she was due to arrive. He was connected up to a defibrillator, but the poor chap didn’t make it. I don’t think Maggie ever knew about that.

Anyway, that incident passed over and I went into the Grand. The first person I saw was a journalist who liked a drink and he had liked several drinks that night so I told him what had happened and ended up filing his story for him. Then, about half an hour before the bomb went off, I said ‘enough’ and headed back to my room in the hotel next door.

When I woke up at about 7.30am, the first thing I thought was: ‘my bed-light is on and I know I switched it off.’. I turned on the BBC news and saw a guy doorstepping Maggie and Leon Brittan walking past in the background as white as a sheet. Then the TV coverage switched back to the Grand and they were digging Norman Tebbit out of the rubble.

So, basically, I had slept through the bomb and the evacuation of my hotel. A suspect package had also been found and blown up at the side of my hotel. I had slept through that too.

I phoned my wife to say I was OK and went outside. The whole place was cordoned off and there was this woman screaming and running at the cops, they were restraining her. I found out later, she had woken up to find half the bedroom was gone; her husband was gone.

We got on with the day, but we didn’t know who was dead or alive. Anybody who was in the Grand had lost their accreditation so I set up a re-accreditation point. At one point, the phone rang. Helen Liddell was on the other end of the line and she was blazing with anger.

The other thing I remember is this guy came over and I didn’t recognise him. He was wearing a black polo neck. It turned out it was Robin Day. He had lost his glasses and bow ties in the blast. I thought for quite a bit of the day that just about everybody I had left in the bar was dead, but they weren’t. About midday I met an agent I knew from the North-East of England. When she saw me, she burst into tears because she thought I was dead.

I think we were all shocked and disbelief might have come into it, but you get on with things and you learn from them. I’m not saying I’m a great crisis manager but I tend to deal with things. Once you have seen that, you have seen everything.