A light breeze salted the Brighton seafront when the taxi carrying Patrick Magee pulled up outside the Grand Hotel.
The driver opened the boot and gave a cheerful warning to the porter who reached for the case. “You’d better hold onto your nuts for this one, you’ll need ’em.”
It was just after noon on September 15, 1984, and it felt like the last day of summer. Sunshine burned through a residue of clouds, warming the pebbles on the beach. The English Channel glistened, serene. The Grand soared over King’s Road like an overstuffed wedding cake, eight stories of eaves, cornices, and Victorian elaboration coated cream and white. A Union Jack fluttered from the roof. Built for aristocrats, it had hosted kings and presidents and film stars. Soon it would host Margaret Thatcher—and Magee had come to kill her.
The squawk of gulls competed with the tinkle of fairground music. It was a Saturday and Brighton, perched on the southern coast of England, was a town at play. Tourists strolled along the promenade, a favorite spot to devour ice cream, fudge and Brighton rock, a cylindrical stick of boiled sugar that resembled dynamite. Others sat in deck chairs facing France, invisible over the horizon. The tide was coming in, covering the sand. Brighton was a town for discreet, raffish fun, so it was anyone’s guess which of the couples strolling arm in arm were illicit. The playwright Noël Coward is said to have adored the place: “Ah, dear Brighton—piers, queers and racketeers.”
Football fans streamed to the Goldstone Ground stadium to watch Brighton & Hove Albion take on their archrivals, Crystal Palace. Teenagers walked to the rhythm of their Walkmans; Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” topped the charts. There was a festive mood in the air because that morning Princess Diana and Prince Charles had been driven to St Mary’s hospital for the birth of their second child. Even Charles did not know if the nation would be celebrating a baby prince or princess.
Magee, age 32, blended in. Clean shaven, neatly dressed, he could have been a tourist or a traveling salesman. He said and did nothing that would stand out. Anyone paying close attention might have noticed a missing fingertip on his right hand, and perhaps they would have sensed a wariness, a coiled tension in his manner—but no one was watching him.
For more than a decade he had been on the radar of security forces: the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland, the British army, Ireland’s An Garda Síochána, London’s Metropolitan police, the British domestic intelligence agency MI5, the overseas intelligence agency MI6. Each had files on Patrick Joseph Magee, one of the best operatives in the Irish Republican Army.
For 15 years, the IRA had been waging an insurgency to end British rule in Northern Ireland and to unite the region with the Republic of Ireland. It was the latest iteration of a centuries-old conflict between Irish rebels and their dominant neighbor.
In 1921, an earlier version of the IRA had expelled the British from 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties, paving the way for a republic ruled from Dublin. For Irish nationalists, it was as if a malignant cancer—an invasive force that had colonized Ireland’s land and people, ravaged its language and culture, poisoned the very idea of Irishness, all in the name of making Ireland British—had finally been excised. But, crucially, it was not gone altogether. The Union Jack still flew over those six northern counties. These were home to 800,0000 Protestants—descendants of British settlers who had no desire to join a new independent state dominated by Catholics. So the British government carved out a statelet, Northern Ireland, that became a self-governing region within the United Kingdom.
The problem was that 450,000 Catholics in Northern Ireland felt stuck on the wrong side of the new border. Northern Ireland was run by Protestants for Protestants. The Catholic minority got the worst jobs and housing, and the government in London shrugged. When Catholics marched for civil rights in the late 1960s, police beat them. Riots escalated into an insurgency led by a revived IRA.
The IRA considered its campaign of bombings and shootings a war of liberation to end British imperialism and to unite Ireland. The British and Irish governments called it terrorism by republican ideologues who ignored the wish of most people in Northern Ireland to remain in the UK. By 1984, the conflict had claimed more than 2,500 lives and gained a euphemism: the Troubles.
The IRA had become one of the world’s most effective guerrilla forces, capable of sustaining a bloody challenge to the combined might of British military, economic, and political power. But the organization was under pressure. Britain’s security forces had gotten smarter, adapted, recruited spies. Instead of retreating from Northern Ireland, the British were entrenching—fortifying police and army bases, wooing investors, building housing estates. Numbed to the violence, Britons found the Troubles dreary, even boring, and mercifully over there, across the Irish Sea.
Magee had come to Brighton to break the stalemate.
This was the one operation that could change the strategic calculus, even reorder history. To give birth, as the Irish writer William Butler Yeats put it, to a terrible beauty. Magee was tasked with wiping out Thatcher and her cabinet. He was to turn the Grand Hotel into a tomb.
It was the most audacious conspiracy against the British Crown since the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when English Catholics planted barrels of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords. In that instance, they were discovered and their heads ended up on spikes. Centuries later, the English still burned the plotters’ effigies on November 5, Bonfire Night, and kids still chanted the same rhyme:
“Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.”
Such long memories for a bomb that didn’t even go off.
If Magee did his job right, the English would have a new date to remember. The most important fact, as Magee climbed the four steps leading to the Grand’s main entrance, was that he had evaded surveillance. Since the early 1970s, British security forces had linked him to dozens of bombings in Northern Ireland and England. For the risks he took they gave him a nickname: the Chancer. A poor choice because in truth he was meticulous. It was the reason he was still alive.
When the IRA made mistakes or was unlucky—a jammed gun, a premature bomb, the wrong victim—British security forces called it “the Paddy Factor,” reflecting an old prejudice that the Irish were stupid or feckless, just not up to the job even when the job was killing people. But despite all their files and technology and manpower, their border checks and extradition treaties and anti-terrorism legislation, this paddy had eluded them. No one knew he had slipped into England and was now stepping through the Grand’s revolving glass door.
For Magee, this was a moment to savor. Years of planning had led to this. He felt like a submarine captain rising from the depths and peering through a periscope at an enemy ship. Sunlight flooded the lobby, and its marble floors, leather armchairs, and cream-colored velvet drapes seemed a hymn to old world opulence. Autumnal bouquets and French polish scented the air. To the left was the Victoria bar, royal portraits forming a gallery along the walls, Queen Victoria stern, Queen Elizabeth smiling. To the right, beyond a concierge’s mahogany desk, waited a restaurant’s white linen tablecloths, duck-egg blue walls and chandeliers. After midday it transitioned from cream teas, served on silver platters, to lunch. Saturday tended to be busy, diners ebbing and flowing while guests hovered in the lobby.
There was a timelessness to the Grand, as if the calendar still said 1862, when British imperial power was at its zenith and the hotel’s skeleton first rose over the promenade. Completing the pride of Brighton had required more than 3 million bricks, 12,560 cubic feet of York and Portland stone, 450 tons of wrought and cast iron, 30 miles of flooring, 6 miles of gas piping, 3 acres of tiles and glass, 15 miles of wallpaper, and 230 marble chimney pieces. Five lifts known as “ascending staircases” inspired wonder. Guest books read like a political Who’s Who—Emperor Louis Napoleon III, former Soviet premiers Georgy Malenkov and Nikolai Bulganin, President John F Kennedy, every recent British prime minister—and Hollywood celebrities, including Ronald Reagan when he was an actor, added glamor.
Magee was entirely out of his element. He had grown up poor in Belfast, and the often gritty accommodation of life in the IRA—ditches, outhouses, jail cells—in no way prepared him for this kind of splendor. But he could not betray any unease, any hint of interloping into an alien world. To operate in England was a performative act. Magee was behind enemy lines, cut off from the movement’s network of sympathizers. He had to cloak himself in a different identity and conceal the west Belfast accent that so alarmed English ears. “A few active, intrepid and intelligent men can do much to annoy and hurt England,” Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, an Irish rebel leader, wrote in 1876. “It requires a little band of heroes… men who will fly over land and sea like invisible beings.”
Striding past the restaurant, passing under a sunlit atrium, Magee was visible to all. But what was there to see? Just another visitor approaching the reception desk. A young receptionist, Trudy Groves, smiled in welcome. Magee requested an upper floor room with a sea view. Three nights. He was polite and soft-spoken, the accent English, perhaps a hint of the midlands. The hotel was enjoying a good September but had rooms available. Groves presented a registration card.
Magee would not have been human if he did not hesitate at this moment, a crucial test of fieldcraft he would have rehearsed. The trick was to fill in the card without his hands touching it, to leave no prints, and do so without looking awkward or drawing attention, leaving the receptionist with no memory of this encounter. He was to be forgettable, a blur. The pen hovered, then etched its fictions. Nationality: English. Address: 27 Braxfield Road, London, SE4. Magee printed and signed a name: Roy Walsh. The bill for three nights’ half bed and board was £180. Magee paid up front, in cash. Groves filed the registration card and handed over the key to room 629.
As Magee ascended to his room, his target was 90 miles north in the Buckinghamshire countryside. Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, was in her fifth year of power. She had won two general elections and a war and was now busy wrenching the UK’s economy towards freewheeling capitalism. On this sunny Saturday, Thatcher was at her country residence catching up with friends while keeping tabs on a diplomatic crisis in South Africa, talks with China over Hong Kong, and a coal miners’ strike.
There was also the vexing matter of her speech at the upcoming Conservative party conference. It would be the climax of her party’s annual get-together, a chance for cabinet ministers, members of parliament and party activists to give a standing ovation and chant “Maggie!” They did so every year. But Thatcher agonized over the text. Behind her trademark armor-plated confidence, she fretted the speech would fall flat and disappoint her audience. She was already tormenting her speech writers with notes and revisions.
Everything had to go right at Brighton.
Stepping into room 629, Magee discovered the Grand’s little secret: its grandeur was slipping. The carpet and wallpaper were worn; the décor and furniture were aged. There was, however, a sweeping vista of the seafront, framed by two piers. Several hundred yards to the left stood the Palace pier, packed with pavilions and kiosks, jutting over the blue-gray sea. If the sash windows were open, the fairground music poured in. To the right stood the West pier, empty and derelict. People strolled on the promenade, savoring possibly the last weekend of good weather before autumn bit.
If Magee turned on the TV that afternoon, he would have caught the news: at 4:20 p.m., Princess Diana gave birth to a boy, a yet-to-be named brother to Prince William. Crowds outside the hospital whooped and cheered. The new prince weighed 6 pounds and 14 ounces. With the evening sun casting a glow on the hotel’s façade, Magee set to work birthing his own creation: a long-delay time bomb.
It was Margaret Thatcher’s policy to treat republican prisoners as common criminals—in theory, no different than burglars, rapists, murderers—and thereby delegitimize the republican cause. Republican prisoners had resisted to the point of starving themselves to death in hunger strikes, and still Thatcher held firm. It earned her the bitter enmity of the IRA, a level of hate not seen for an English leader in centuries. The IRA’s army council, its governing body, decided to kill her. The assassination could be cloaked in strategy, but the impetus was revenge. Many doubted it could be done. The IRA had never attempted to take out a sitting prime minister. It was too hard, too risky. But a plot had taken shape, scouts gathered intelligence, bomb makers built and tested prototypes, quartermasters managed supply routes and logistics. Bank raids, kidnap ransoms and Irish-American donations helped pay the bills.
Now it was down to Magee, the last link in the chain. Once, he had dreamed of being an artist, but Ireland’s history swept away his canvas and conjured a new devotion. His job was to assemble and plant the device. Room 629 was his workshop. Slowly, painstakingly, he would lay out a tangle of wires, batteries, and timers, as well as a mound of gelignite, and step by step build a precision weapon.
As the sun slid into the Channel on that first night, life unfolded around Magee. Down the corridor, in room 645, a guest hired a photographer to take erotic portraits of his female companion. In the Victoria bar, a red-haired chanteuse named Georgie played piano. A gathering of mystics filled Hove town hall with the aroma of incense. Cinemas dimmed their lights to screen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. On the beach, fishermen cast their lines long, for the tide was retreating. As the dusk deepened, lanterns strung along the promenade began to glow.
The Chancer had three days and nights to complete and conceal the bomb. It was to hold its breath for 24 days, six hours and 32 minutes. Then, if all went according to plan, from room 629 there would be a blaze of light, a sound like thunder, and the heart of the Grand Hotel would crack, unleashing vengeance on those below.