Revealed: how a false name nearly exposed IRA plot to kill Margaret Thatcher | Northern Irish politics

Shortly after noon on 15 September 1984, a young, smartly dressed man walked into the Grand hotel at Brighton and asked for a room facing the sea. The receptionist offered number 629, on the sixth floor. The guest paid £180 cash for three nights. On the registration card, he gave his nationality as English, his address as Braxfield Road, London, and his name as Roy Walsh. Thus was born one of the great riddles of the Troubles.

Nearly four weeks later, at 2.54am on 12 October, the guest’s purpose was revealed when a bomb in room 629 exploded. It obliterated adjoining rooms and unleashed a blast wave that shredded the roof. A five-tonne chimney stack crashed down into the rooms below, sweeping all away in its path.

The IRA had hoped to kill the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and to wipe out her cabinet on the last night of the Conservative party conference. She survived – the lethal avalanche just missed her suite. Five people died and 34 were injured, including Norman Tebbit and his wife, Margaret.

The most audacious attack on the British state since the 1605 gunpowder plot triggered a vast manhunt that led eight months later to the dramatic capture of the bomber, Patrick Magee. He was convicted and imprisoned for life.

An enigma remained. Why did Magee use the pseudonym Roy Walsh? Walsh was a well-known fellow member of the Provisional IRA. This had been the most painstaking operation in the IRA’s history, years in the planning, little left to chance. Yet Magee’s choice of pseudonym had imperilled everything. It gave police a clue that could have led to the bomb’s detection.

The probable rationale for Magee’s extraordinary action threads together Irish republican history, IRA psychology and the Good Friday agreement. It is the IRA version of Rosebud, the word that unlocks the mystery in the film Citizen Kane. Only now, as the UK prepares to mark 10 years since Thatcher’s death, and 25 years since the peace agreement, has the story emerged.

When, for a Guardian article in 2021, I asked Magee about the pseudonym, he said there was no hidden significance – it was a last-minute random choice. This is implausible. The IRA had stalked Thatcher since the 1981 hunger strikes. Brighton was a one-off opportunity that followed elaborate planning: scouts had surveilled previous party conferences and a construction engineer had inspected the grand’s architecture.

Magee was an experienced bomber – a meticulous “operator” in IRA parlance – and could do a convincing English accent. Yet his choice of pseudonym risked it all because there was the real Roy Walsh – a fellow Provo from Belfast well known to the English authorities. Walsh had been caught with the rest of an IRA team in 1973 after setting off two car bombs in London.

By 1984, Walsh had spent 11 years in English prisons, waging a dogged, often lonely, rebellion against his captors – another front in IRA resistance. He led protests, challenged guards, got into fights, tried to escape, leading to punishment blocks and solitary confinement. The Andersontown News In Belfast he interviewed his family, who complained of mistreatment during his visits.

To this day, former IRA members debate whether Magee turned the attempted assassination of the Iron Lady into a homage to Walsh. Both were members of the England Department, the elite IRA unit charged with exporting the war across the Irish Sea. Such operations had a long republican lineage, starting with a wheelbarrow of explosives outside London’s Clerkenwell prison in 1867, followed by Fenian dynamiters in the 1880s.

The badly damaged Grand Hotel in Brighton after an IRA bomb exploded in the building during the 1984 Conservative party conference.
The badly damaged Grand Hotel in Brighton after an IRA bomb exploded in the building during the 1984 Conservative party conference. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis/Getty Images

The armed struggle sought legitimacy in continuity – a torch of resistance passed from generation to generation. For his own pseudonym in 1973, Walsh had chosen Tom Clarke, the name of a well-known Fenian who had bombed Victorian London.

In using the name Roy Walsh, Magee linked himself and the Brighton attack to a venerable, secret brotherhood dedicated to ending British rule on the island of Ireland. The choice could also be viewed as a taunt to the police who would hunt him down. But it risked exposing the plot. The security services knew that the IRA had sophisticated timers that could detonate bombs planted weeks in advance of a VIP visit. A sweep of the Grand before the Conservative conference could have included a review of previous guests – and piqued curiosity at the one that shared the name of a jailed IRA bomber. It was a small, needless risk.

“For some extraordinary reason, he chose the name of one of the London bombers,” Michael Hayes, an IRA planner who dispatched Magee to Brighton, told me. I could never come to terms with that. I called him an idiot.”

But Magee got away with it. The IRA had kept the operation tight. Intelligence agencies had no idea what was coming. Sussex police made just a cursory search of the Grand. Their fear was not a ticking bomb but striking miners storming the conference. The security lapses were a failure of imagination – nobody since Guy Fawkes had tried to blow up the government.

Thatcher was in the Napoleon suite on the first floor, five floors beneath room 629. Had she been in her bathroom, which was badly damaged, she would almost certainly have been killed, or at least seriously injured. She was in the lounge, still working. Even there, she might have died. But for a quirk of geometry, the cascade of masonry could have crashed through the ceiling.

The sight of bloodied, dust-caked Tories stumbling out of the ruins shocked Britain and the world. Hours later, Thatcher gave a defiant speech – she insisted the conference proceed – that, even her critics lauded. It was her finest moment.

Police extracted registration cards from the ruble and focused on guests who had stayed in sixth-floor rooms. When detectives visited Braxfield Road, nobody had heard of Roy Walsh. The investigation pivoted to uncovering the identity of room 629’s mystery occupant. On the assumption the bomber had some form of ID to back up the pseudonym, detectives trawled the passport office, driver licensing offices and registers of births, deaths and marriages, racking up multiple Roy Walshes, all of whom were checked and eliminated. There was an appeal on BBC TV’s crimewatch For information about the guest known as Roy Walsh.

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Patrick Magee, who was sentenced to eight life terms for the bombing of the Grand Hotel, was photographed on the night of his arrest in 1985.
Patrick Magee, who was sentenced to eight life terms for the bombing of the Grand Hotel, was photographed on the night of his arrest in 1985. Photograph: PA

The public appeal jolted the real Roy Walsh, who was in Wandsworth prison. He had had no advance knowledge of the Brighton attack and heard about it on the news. That police were hunting a suspect with his name baffled Walsh – and worried his guards. Was it a coincidence, some sort of message, a threat? The prisoner seized the opportunity for leverage. “I played on it a wee bit with the screws: ‘Fuck about with me, I’ll get you done.'” And they backed off.”

Scotland Yard eventually matched a print on the registration card with one in their file on Patrick Magee. In June 1985, Scottish detectives stormed an apartment in Glasgow and arrested Magee and four other IRA members who were planning a bombing blitz in England. He was convicted and sentenced to eight life terms, with a recommendation that he serve at least 35 years.

In November 1985, Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish agreement, a landmark treaty that gave Dublin a limited role in Northern Ireland. It helped pave the way to the peace process that culminated in the 1998 Good Friday agreement. Under its terms, paramilitary prisoners were to be freed.

The following year Magee walked out of the Maze prison having served 14 years. In one of the ironies of the Troubles, the woman he had tried to kill inadvertently helped his early release.

There is a coda to the story. After his release, Magee encountered a crumpled-looking figure on the Falls Road in Belfast selling raffle tickets to ex-prisoners.

“Pat!” the man called out. It was Roy Walsh. “Pat,” he repeated, “give me a pound.”

It was a surreal encounter. The men recognized but hardly knew each other. Magee handed over a pound and Walsh gave him a ticket. Asked what name to put on the stub, Magee replied: “Care of Roy Walsh?”

Walsh did not ask about the pseudonym at Brighton, and Magee did not volunteer an explanation, in keeping with IRA operational etiquette.

To this day, Walsh says he does not know why Magee used his name. He jokingly refers to Magee as “Pat the Imposter”.

Killing Thatcher: the IRA, the Manhunt and the Long War on the Crown, by Rory Carroll (Mudlark, £25) is published in hardback on 4 April. It will be published on the same day in the US under the title There Will Be Fire: Margaret Thatcher, the IRA and Two Minutes That Changed History (Putnam, $29)

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo