Patrick Magee, the man who planted an IRA bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984 in an attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher, writes from a pub in Belfast, reflecting on the grief of conflict and division of the Troubles and Irish Partition, showing how nobody wins until we all win.
This is an extract taken from his new memoir, Where Grieving Begins.
‘Post-conflict Belfast (there’s an optimistic turn of phrase!) is best epitomised, for me, by a visit to the Sunflower Pub in Kent Street where, nearly half a century ago, I received my first direction as an IRA volunteer. Back then it was the Avenue Bar, a smoke-filled haven for local punters. In the midst of the Troubles, the bar was blown up and shot up by loyalists. People were killed; limbs were lost. As recounted earlier, this was a dangerous area. The security caged entrance is still there, one of the last, if not the last, in the city, a respectful memorial to those dark days. Now the young have made the bar their own. Students, artists and young professionals for the most part. It’s rare to spot a local from the old district. Belfast itself, and indeed the North, is now a popular tourist destination. Theirs now: never ours then. We hated the exclusion that the centre stood for – where Orangemen could flaunt their triumph, but where no nationalist could parade until well into the 1980s.
Few now appear interested in or even aware of that history. Or at best they consider it academic and remote from the new reality. Snippets of conversation overheard, for it’s a bar where people talk easily, suggest that the patrons come from every quarter of the city. It couldn’t be further removed from the huddled, conspiratorial ambience of former times. It is now a microcosm of the shared future we all seek.
We cannot draw a line under the past; we must strive to understand that past or potentially have to deal with conflict in the future. I am sufficiently realistic to expect that evidential detail of our historical trauma will continue to surface or be unearthed without satisfaction of the concomitant need felt by many for justice. Lost documents may surface; others will be released after the thirty-year rule embargo; memoirs and deathbed confessions may add to the mosaic. We will never get the completed picture. People in positions of power will take their secrets to the grave or beyond the reach of blame. It is difficult to imagine that any British minister or general will ever stand in the dock to answer for their culpability for the conflict; for sanctioning torture and murder; nor for the core injustice of partition, or for turning a blind eye to fifty years of unionist misrule, or for the conduct of Direct Rule. I am also aware that there are many victims of republican actions who are unlikely to achieve closure.
The extent of the human cost to all may blind us to how much we have in common. Republicans share with loyalists the lived experience of communal threat, regardless of how far the threat was and is imagined or concocted. From a republican perspective, the essential difference between our communities, despite the overlap of shared poverty and deprivation, is that Protestant communities historically were aligned with power and privilege. That is our understanding. The cohesive power of Orangeism, in James Connolly’s analysis, was or is to subsume distinct class interests under the misperceived and deliberately fostered fear of Irish republicanism. This ought to be a focus for dialogue between communities who always shared much more than divided us.
The immediate future is uncertain. We are in a period of transition. I believe we are capable of a mature appraisal of what is needed to maximise the economic and social potential within the island of Ireland; not separate from, isolated from, that other island – that other community with whom we share history – and without shedding one scintilla of cultural identity or political conviction.
The world is smaller on our handheld screens. We feel the pain of the child in Gaza or in Yemen or in Rochdale; we despair together over climate change and other global challenges and together must organise if we are to deal effectively with them. Intrepid journalists send images of events as they happen with astonishing immediacy. We are now, to a greater extent, alert to the pain and suffering of others in our global village. Empathy now can be harnessed to change the world.
I can look back on my involvement in the conflict at various stages – while active; in periods of incarceration; as a fugitive. There are many moments that signified change; development; awakening. Perhaps the most significant occurred nearly two decades ago at some midpoint in that marathon, three-hour dialogue I had with Jo Berry [the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry, who was killed in the bombing]. The sudden awareness that what I imagined to be my openness to other perspectives – my preparedness to listen, to challenge, to question certainty – had shrunk; that there were conflict-inducing limitations to my perception of reality. That natural human ability to empathise had been diminished. All of us, all sides to the conflict, were locked into a mindset narrowed by the effects of that same conflict even as we emerged into the light of the peace process. Call it an epiphany. I recognise it as a moment of healing; a gradual reversal of the damage individually and collectively that the existential trauma of the conflict had accreted over decades, at each painful turn. I had failed to perceive the fullness of others’ humanity.
In conflict, any conflict, we are all diminished. Outcomes are rarely definitive. We can survive; perhaps achieve some ends: more equality, liberty, justice. But often loss and pain at the personal level preclude any sense of victory. For some, nothing is worth the loss of a single drop of blood; others may take stock of future benefits, the ends justifying the means. To have prevailed against terrible odds seems a victory. If our enemies had indeed won, as we often hear promulgated in their media, we might have expected from them more magnanimity, a willingness to move on, instead of which there is the continual assertion of our defeat. I am satisfied that we prevailed. But at terrible cost.
I am not a pacifist. Reluctantly and regrettably, that is where I am. What parent wouldn’t protect their child from violence? My core conflict is that I stand over my actions and yet profoundly regret the hurt inflicted. It is an uncomfortable and often a difficult lived experience to attempt to justify. But I believe our struggle was necessary and therefore justified. War came to us. People were hurt. I hurt people. Enemies, yes, but even their loss and pain is a matter of regret.
For all that is lost in conflict – precious lives and potential, family, friends and comrades, the innocent and bystanding – we can honour by imagining the future and working to harmonise our efforts and vision. My greatest sense of hope for the future has always come from contact with the Other – the imagined Other – for faced with the shared reality of what we are and have in common, Otherness begins to lose its crippling hold. We need to transcend division, to leave Otherness behind as a useless, debilitating, myopic and mutually self-destructive state of mental negation. I think it is profoundly inappropriate to speak of winners when so many from all sides have experienced loss. Nobody wins until we all win. We are all reduced. Grief is a particular and a universal experience. This is our situation and where we begin.’
Patrick Magee was a committed member of the IRA for 27 years, fighting against British rule of Ireland under partition. He was responsible for planting the ‘Brighton Bomb’ in 1984. Since his release from prison after the Good Friday Agreement, he has worked towards building a common understanding of the past. He completed his PhD whilst in prison, and is the author of Where Grieving Begins: Building Bridges after the Brighton Bomb (Pluto, 2021) and Gangsters or Guerrillas? Representations of Irish Republicans in Troubles Fiction (Beyond the Pale Publications, 2001). He remains a republican.
Artwork credit: ‘Irishmen Avenge Irish Dead’ by Ralph Lillford, 1975.