My world fell to pieces at precisely 2.54am 30 years ago. I was asleep on the sixth floor of the Grand Hotel in Brighton when I was woken by a sound that only slowly I came to realise was the hotel falling apart. For an instant, it seemed like a dream, but the billowing, choking dust that filled my eyes and throat said otherwise.
After the initial shock, there was a silence so profound that it still screams in my ears today. Then alarm bells kicked in. It was a bomb. And it was time to get out.
I was one of the lucky ones – close but no scars. Others weren’t so fortunate.
The snippets of memory left behind as we clambered out through the darkness seem somehow ludicrous. On the rear fire escape I found Sir Robin Day, the master interrogator, clad in an outrageous silk dressing gown with a folded newspaper under his arm. Less well clad was the government minister who cowered in a corner. He was stark naked, except for an inadequate towel. I took pity, asked no questions, and gave him my coat.
Further down the escape route was yet another senior politician, Sir Jock Bruce-Gardyne, immaculately attired in a three-piece suit complete with club tie that screamed of resilience under fire, an effect ruined by two brightly coloured but wildly clashing socks. Thereafter he was known as “One Sock Jock”.
Many others were in deep distress, covered in charnel dust, struggling to hide their fears. Debris was still falling. This was conference; it was supposed to be party time.
I went in search of Norman and Margaret Tebbit. I was his special adviser, had driven them to the conference after a light lunch prepared by Margaret. It was to be the last meal she ever made.
Misguided party officials began spreading the rumour that there were no casualties, everyone was out, but that was nonsense. I had spent much of the previous day in the Tebbits’ room working on speeches with him. The room was directly behind the proud hotel sign that adorned the front of the building and that now sagged pathetically. Behind it the window frames were empty, staring like the eye sockets of a skull.
The emergency services began searching for survivors – and bodies. They found Norman beneath tons of rubble. Fred Bishop, the fireman who was digging him out, asked, “Are you OK, Norman?” “Get off my bloody foot, Fred!” he cried in agony. Norman, like Margaret, was savagely injured, but not so badly. They had lain together for hours, in the crushing darkness, holding each other’s hand, saying goodbye.
I headed for the local hospital and helped set up a rudimentary communications room, not easy in the days before mobile phones and crisis management protocols. The Tebbit children had to be contacted before they woke up to find journalists pounding at their doors. The news of Margaret, in particular, wasn’t good. The doctors told me she had “a problem with her back”. It was a problem that still today confines her to a wheelchair.
John Wakeham, the government Chief Whip, was in a nearby hospital room. His wife had been killed and he had received massive injuries, particularly to his legs. There was talk of them being amputated. The fact that he survived was a marvel; that he ever walked again was closer to a miracle.
Five people were murdered that night. And all our lives changed.
While many sat in shock, accepting refuge and endless mugs of tea from Brighton’s formidable landladies, for Margaret Thatcher it became a defining moment. At 3am she was hustled away in her nightclothes, still covered in the dust of the attempt to murder her. Barely six hours later she was back in the conference hall, hair restored, speech rewritten, hurling defiance at the bombers. “The fact that we are gathered here now – shocked, but composed and determined – is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”
This moment, perhaps more than any other, showed her true mettle. This wasn’t considered or calculated, it was Maggie, raw, resilient, speaking from the gut. It was the making of her. Yet despite her defiance, the rules of the political game would change dramatically. Now, instead of spontaneity, we do security. We play politics from behind bullet-proof screens and body scanners. We talk of threat levels and facial-recognition software. And the first view a schoolchild will get on a visit to our Parliament is of a police officer in body armour cradling a 9mm Heckler & Koch sub-machine gun.
The days of the walkabout, of prime ministers such as John Major campaigning from a soap box in the street, are largely gone. Politicians are distanced from the electorate – and perhaps from real life.
There has been a loss of innocence and our politics are the poorer for it – except, paradoxically, in Northern Ireland itself. Does it matter if former IRA terrorists now occupy senior positions in Stormont, if the Queen can visit Ireland in peace and friendship? While there are still men of evil and violence, they now lurk in the shadows rather than march through the streets. So much has changed there, mostly for the better. Perhaps it is time to forget.
But I can’t. I remember a few days after the bomb when I was called to the police station at Brighton to reclaim the Tebbits’ belongings that had been dug out of the rubble. On all sides of a large room were plastic bags filled with intimate items. In one bag, smothered in dust, was Margaret’s handbag. It was so terribly battered and torn, like Margaret herself. I left the station, sat down on the steps, and I wept. Then I dropped the bag in a rubbish bin. I couldn’t give it back to her.
I can still smell the dust from that bag. So when my path crosses that of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, usually in a broadcasting studio, I leave.
For me, there are too many memories. I had spent an afternoon at the start of the historic 1979 election talking to Airey Neave, Margaret Thatcher’s chief of staff, about his plans for the future. The next day he was murdered by a car bomb yards from where we had been sitting. Another dear friend, Ian Gow, was killed 11 years later.
And how many innocent people were murdered over the years – over the centuries – in Northern Ireland itself? It was a dirty war of sometimes unspeakable excess on all sides, Catholics, Protestants and the British Army, but I don’t accept there was a moral equivalence. The figures speak for themselves. Some 3,680 people were killed during the Troubles. Fifty-nine per cent were victims of republicans, 29 per cent victims of loyalists. The security forces were responsible for 365 deaths and few were criminally culpable.
It is a story laden with ironies. Those convicted of the bombing – Patrick Magee and four others – have been freed; only the victims and their families are still serving a sentence, every day.
There are those who argue that the bomb was necessary, that it kick-started the peace process. That is largely wishful thinking. To the contrary, it was the realisation that the IRA could never bomb their way to their goals that forced them to the negotiating table. The ensuing talks resulted in a deal that was in many ways disgraceful, full of inconsistencies, devoid of justice – except that it has brought hope. There would never be a neat solution. It was time for Ireland to stop choking on its past.
And here is perhaps the ultimate irony. It was recently revealed that, in 1983, Margaret Thatcher told her private secretary, Sir John Coles, that she wouldn’t be long in office. “My party won’t want me to lead them into the next election – and I don’t blame them.” Behind the iron carapace, she was sometimes a woman of damp eyes and vulnerabilities. Yet a year later, the heat of the Brighton bomb seemed to recast her, made the metal even tougher. She didn’t quit, she carried on, and on, and on.
The IRA tried to destroy her. Instead, they helped to create her. History spins on such delicate threads.
Lord Dobbs was Margaret Thatcher’s chief of staff from 1986-87 and the author of the novel ‘House of Cards’