Thatcher’s Close Call

Ross Laver October 22 1984

Thatcher’s Close Call

Ross Laver October 22 1984

Thatcher’s Close Call


Ross Laver

The elegant 19th-century Grand Hotel in the English Channel resort of Brighton was bustling with activity even though it was the middle of the night. In the lobby about 200 revellers were returning to their rooms from a formal ball marking the annual fourday conference of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party. Upstairs, in her secondfloor Napoleon suite, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Conservative Party chairman John Gummer worked on her keynote address to the closing session of the conference. Thatcher’s husband, Denis, 68, was sleeping in a nearby bed. Suddenly, at 2:54 a.m. last Friday, a powerful explosion ripped out a huge frontal section of the eight-storey building, scattering chunks of concrete and burying dozens of guests under dust and debris.

Fatalities: Remarkably, Thatcher —she was to deliver her speech on a day when her party planned to debate the British army’s role in strife-torn Northern Ireland—escaped unhurt. So did all but one of the 22 cabinet members who were staying in the hotel. But by Saturday the toll, still incomplete as rescuers picked through the rubble, stood at three killed, 32 injured and one missing and presumed dead. Among the fatalities: veteran Tory MP Sir Anthony Berry, 59, four of whose children by a first marriage are cousins of the Princess of Wales. Almost immediately, British police suspected that the outlawed Irish Republican Army was responsible for the blast, an unprecedented attack on the entire government.

Indeed, nine hours later in Dublin, an IRA spokesman who signed himself “P. O’Neill” issued a statement claiming that provisional IRA guerrillas had detonated a 100-lb. gelignite bomb “against the British cabinet and the Tory warmongers.” Added the statement: “Today we were unlucky. But remember, we have only to be lucky once: you will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no war.”

For her part, a defiant Thatcher shrugged off her brush with death and insisted that the party conference proceed as scheduled. Declared Gummer: “This government will never give way to

bombs in Brighton, any more than we give way to bombs in Belfast. There is no way that violence will be allowed to win in this country while this government is in power.”

Nevertheless, the shocking implication of last week’s bombing was that despite years of counterterrorist efforts by the British army and police, IRA rebels still roam largely unchecked across the British political landscape. Thatcher herself had never before been the target of an assassination attack, although police have intercepted a series of letter bombs destined for her or her ministers in the five years since she took office. But in its campaign to drive the British out of Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland and unite it with the Irish republic, the IRA has killed 84 people and injured more than 1,000 since its attacks began in Britain in 1972. In one grisly incident a car bomb exploded outside London’s famous Harrod’s department store last Dec. 17, killing six people and injuring more than 90.

Threat: At the same time, the IRA’S spectacular success in penetrating British security seemed certain to add to Thatcher’s list of political problems. The Iron Lady’s grip on her own party looked as firm as ever last week, despite the presence of a few back-bench malcontents (page 36). But her government still appears powerless to end the country’s seven-month coalminers’ strike, and as each week passes the threat of power cuts this winter looms steadily larger. At the same time, the government’s controversial economic policies have failed utterly to cure unemployment, which is now 13.6 per cent and rising. A recent poll showed that while the Tories were still ahead of the opposition Labour Party, 84 per cent of voters believed Thatcher was doing a bad job on unemployment, and 62 per cent criticized her handling of the coal strike.

Last week the Church of England, traditionally a friend of the Conservative Party, added its authoritative voice to the chorus of Thatcher’s critics. In an outspoken interview with the London Times, the Archbishop of Canterbury,

the Most Rev. Robert Runcie, denounced the handling of the miners’ strike and declared that politicians who “treat people as scum” are partly to blame for picket-line violence. Also last week, Thatcher faced criticism over allegations of excessive government secrecy. The attacks occurred as a senior civil servant went on trial for passing state secrets about Whitehall’s handling of the 1982 Falklands War to an opposition MP (page 38).

Still, those troubles paled in comparison to the carnage caused by last week’s

attack. Indeed, special branch detectives in Brighton disclosed that the blast would probably have killed Thatcher had it occurred only two minutes earlier —when the prime minister was using the bathroom. Although the rest of her suite survived the explosion relatively undamaged, police said, the bathroom was destroyed by falling masonry.

Fortunate: The explosion capped a week of introspection and debate by Conservative members, who talked about the economy. But on Thursday the roughly 1,500 delegates spent the evening relaxing at private receptions and a formal ball at Brighton’s seven-year-old

convention centre, next door to the seafront Grand Hotel. Thatcher herself enjoyed a quiet seafood dinner at the hotel before joining the festivities, dancing with a young Conservative named Tim Butcher and exchanging brief pleasantries with the guests. Then, shortly after 11 p.m. she returned to her suite to continue working on her keynote speech. Said Thatcher, who celebrated her 59th birthday quietly on Saturday: “ I just turned to do one final paper ... and then it went off. My husband was in bed, and all the windows went. The bathroom was extremely badly damaged. We were very, very fortunate.”

Shocked: As it was, Thatcher was shaken but unbowed. Gummer, who was in the hallway outside the prime minister’s suite when the bomb went off, told reporters later that he was thrown off his feet by the force of the explosion. Moments later he saw Thatcher emerge from her bedroom asking, “Is there anything I can do to help?” Recalled Gummer: “She was totally calm and looked very angry.” The prime minister then remained in her room for half an hour, dressing and talking with aides, before leaving by a rear staircase to a waiting Jaguar, which drove her to a nearby police station. A police constable who was with Thatcher shortly after the blast described her as being “icy calm throughout.”

Other hotel guests were less fortunate. Dazed, shocked and covered in dust, dozens of Thatcher’s ministers and other leading Conservatives stumbled from the 178-room hotel in their pyjamas and silk dressing gowns, groping through smoke and scrambling over rubble. Said Conservative Party vicechairman Emma Nicholson, who had been asleep on the second floor near Thatcher’s rooms: “The hotel looked like a film set gone wrong. The chairs we had been sitting in when we were laughing and joking a little while earlier were shattered like matchsticks.”

Surprisingly, the environment secretary, Patrick Jenkins, slept through the blast and did not awaken until the fire alarm sounded. Said Jenkins: “I grabbed a mac [raincoat] and ran out. There were no signs of panic. I didn’t realize how serious it was until I got out and saw the damage to the front of the building.” Then, while crowds milled about on the seafront and appeals went out for medical help, teams of police detectives rushed back into the building to retrieve boxes of confidential cabinet briefing papers left by the ministers in their rooms in the rush to evacuate the hotel.

The injured minister was trade and industry secretary Norman Tebbit, 53. A blunt-spoken defender of tough economic policies whose meteoric rise through the party ranks has earned him the aura of Thatcher’s heir apparent,

Tebbit and his wife, Margaret, were asleep on an upper floor of the 120-yearold hotel when the bomb exploded. Police sources said the minister apparently plunged three or four floors before landing in what was once a main entrance to the hotel under a crushing heap of splintered wood, bed frames and chunks of plaster.

Four hours later firemen digging through the debris spotted his toe.

Working under the glare of a television floodlamp—the only source of light available after the blast crippled the hotel’s power supply—rescuers freed Tebbit and rushed him to the nearby Royal Sussex Hospital for treatment of cracked ribs and a gashed thigh. His wife suffered back injuries. Two more hours passed before the rescuers could extricate another senior Tory, chief whip John Wakeham, 52.

On Saturday a hospital spokesman said that Wakeham’s condition had improved slightly after surgery on severe injuries to his lower legs. But Wakeham’s wife, Anne, was believed to be one of those killed. The third victim was Eric Taylor, a Tory official in his early 50s.

Madness: Outside the hotel a thick cloud of dust and dirt hung over a scene of utter confusion.

Taxi driver Ron Allen, 50, told reporters that two policemen, accompanied by a man and a woman who had witnessed the explosion, commandeered his car and ordered him to look for a young

Arab or Iranian with a _

beard or white trousers.

Said Allen: “I drove

around for about 10 minutes and didn’t see anyone.” Meanwhile, a fleet of about 50 ambulances rushed the injured to hospitals while police sealed off the area and evacuated nearby buildings. Detectives searching for other bombs found a suspicious parcel and destroyed it.

As the rescue mission continued messages of condolence began arriv-

ing from around the country and the world. Opposition leader Neil Kinnock called it a “vile act,” adding, “There can be no concessions to the murdering madness of those who think [up] crimes like this bombing.” From the Vatican, Pope John Paul n sent a message to the Papal Nunciator in London expressing

his sympathy for the victims and their families and denouncing the attack as “an act of futile hatred.” Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald sent a letter expressing his government’s solidarity

_ against terrorism,

“which threatens the institutions and lives of our societies.” Similar messages came from Queen Elizabeth II, who was on a private visit to a Kentucky horse farm, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, President Ronald Reagan and European Commission president Gaston Thorn. One result of last ^ week’s attack was almost I certain to be a change in ¡2 the security system that s shields Thatcher and

other senior government officials. Despite more than a decade of Irish terrorism in Britain—and attacks by other groups backed by Libya’s fanatical Col. Moammar Khadafy—government ministers still appear in public with little or no armed protection. Political insiders said that only three officers from Scotland Yard’s Special Branch accompany Thatcher permanently, in sharp contrast to the heavy security that usually surrounds Reagan.

Ghastly: At the Grand Hotel, there were numerous opportunities for terrorists to strike despite the precautions: metal barriers blocked the main entrance to the building, and authorities restricted access to either party activists or accredited journalists; as well, police had vetted all 120 permanent staff of the hotel and installed closed-circuit television cameras throughout the building. But police often neglected side entrances, and there were no metal detectors or searches of bags. Said one delegate: “Security was terrible. I had to deliver a letter to the prime minister and nobody checked me. I could have been anyone.” Nevertheless, Home Secretary Leon Brittan insisted that police had done all they could to prevent an attack. Said Brittan: “A ghastly event of this sort is obviously worrying. But the hotel is a public place. There is no way in a free country that you can guarantee total security.” Later, the chief constable for the Brighton area, Roger Birch, invited an outside police chief to conduct an inquiry into security measures for the conference.

As the investigation continued police theorized that an explosive device equipped with a battery-powered timer might have been planted in the hotel several weeks ago. As a result, no amount of security checks at the door last week could have prevented the attack. Said Cmdr. Bill Hucklesby of Scotland Yard’s antiterrorist squad, the damage caused by the blast indicated that the bomb had probably been hidden in a cavity between the sixth and seventh floors, perhaps under the floorboards. According to Hucklesby, when the bomb exploded the eighth floor lifted upward, then crashed down onto the seventh floor. Those two then collapsed on the floors below, causing a domino effect. Said Hucklesby: “What we have is a multidecker sandwich of seven layers. It is only because of bad luck that there was so much damage.”

The blast also seemed to suggest that IRA guerrillas are become increasingly expert in the planning of bomb attacks. Said Hucklesby: “The IRA now have the ability to time a device in a more sophisticated manner than before. How do you protect when we’re up against this type of device?” He added that police tracker dogs trained to sniff out explosives had made several sweeps through the hotel in the days leading up to the convention. But the bomb might have escaped detection if it had been wrapped in plastic, or if it was a new form of explosive that the dogs had not been trained to detect.

Defiance: Among the delegates there were few misgivings about the wisdom of Whitehall’s policies in Northern Ireland. Declared Jenny Bianco: “If the IRA thinks this sort of thing is going to frighten the British people away from doing what they believe to be right, they simply don’t understand.” And Tory Nicholas Kent said that the atmosphere Friday afternoon during Thatcher’s keynote speech was one of anger and frustration. Said Kent: “I don’t think [the bombing] changes anything, except that it has made us more determined. The party is in a mood of defiance.” The delegates also approved a resolution supporting the police and armed forces in Northern Ireland and backing efforts to find a just solution to the sectarian violence. Said Thatcher, who received a tumultuous ovation when she stepped to the podium: “The government will not weaken. This nation will rise to the challenge. Democracy will prevail.” Later, the prime minister sped away in a dark blue Jaguar to Chequers, her country retreat.

For their part, British police speculat-

ed that the bombing was in retaliation for the seizure by Irish authorities of a huge shipment of guerrilla arms in late September. Apparently acting on a tip from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, an Irish Navy patrol boat intercepted a small Irish trawler and fired tracer bullets across its bow when the vessel failed to stop. On board, officials found tons of U.S.-made machine-guns, rockets, hand grenades and thousands of rounds of ammunition. According to Irish police sources, the gun-running operation originated in New York and may have used a Canadian-registered mother ship to ferry the arms across the Atlantic.

Hailed as the largest haul of its kind since the Irish troubles began in 1969, the arms seizure was only the latest in a series of recent setbacks for the IRA. Only days earlier security forces had raided a clandestine bomb factory north of London and arrested a man they claimed was one of the rebel army’s top explosives experts. At the same time, police in London have shown themselves adept at cracking IRA units and have made several arrests of suspected IRA guerrillas this year.

Still, last week’s bombing was dramatic evidence that far from yielding to the British government’s pressure, the IRA is still very much in business. Ironically, the terrorist bombing may provoke some much-needed sympathy among voters for Thatcher’s beleaguered government at a time when, on nearly every front, it faces major threats and challenges. That, however, will be no consolation for the families of those who died or were injured in last week’s hotel bombing—or indeed for Thatcher herself, who must now add to the list of political hazards that beset her a more insidious danger: the ever-present threat of a terrorist attack.

Ian Austen

Ian Mather

William Lowther