How the Brighton bomb blast reverberated across Antrim

WHEN looking back at Northern Ireland’s blood-spattered history, perspective is everything - after all, one man’s freedom fighter is another’s hardened terrorist.

The paramilitary career of Patrick Magee is an interesting case in point.

He planted the bomb which killed five people at the Tory Party Conference in October 1984 - an act of carnage plotted to avenge the deaths of 10 men in the hunger strikes.

After handing down eight life sentences, his trial judge branded him ‘a man of exceptional cruelty and inhumanity’.

Others disagreed, including former Antrim Councillor Martin Meehan who greeted him at the prison gates when he was released in 1999. To him, Magee was a close friend and a ‘hero’.

Former South Antrim MP David Burnside was a guest at the Grand Hotel in Brighton that fateful night, and he told the Antrim Guardian that the bloody aftermath remained burned on his memory.

Many of the UUP man’s closest friends were caught up in the blast - including Norman Tebbit and his wife Margaret, who almost perished as the 100-pound device reduced much of the hotel to rubble.

Speaking years later, he remained angry at Magee’s apparent lack of remorse.

And he added that this was further compounded when he saw Martin Meehan greet his old pal when he was freed early under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

“To say I was disgusted that Meehan publicly paraded himself with that man would be a gross understatement,” he fumed.

“Patrick Magee is not a soldier. He’s not a freedom fighter. He’s a cold-blooded killer.

“I was there that night, as were many men, women and children - and any one of them could have been slaughtered in their beds.

“Of course, by the time the hotel was ripped apart Magee was miles away admiring his handiwork.

“It was callous, cowardly and wicked - and the man responsible should never have seen the light of day again.”

But Patrick Magee, of course, was freed in one of the key concessions to secure peace.

It was a ‘bitter pill’ for David Burnside, who argued that the scenes of jubilation at the gates were a ‘gross insult to the butchered and the maimed’.

“The sight of Meehan and Magee laughing and hugging turned my stomach,” he said.

“Hundred of lives changed forever that night in Brighton, yet here they were giving two fingers to the court who said the bomber should serve a life sentence.

“They were puffed up to celebrate the murder of innocent people - and for that Meehan, a so-called elected representative, should hang his head in shame.

“Then when Patrick Magee was interviewed by Peter Taylor he made it abundantly clear that he had no remorse for what he had done.

“Indeed, he seemed to take pride in the blood on his hands. It’s like nazis celebrating the concentration camps.”

The UUP man added that it was a stark contrast to the ‘quiet dignity’ of the victims.

“I thought Norman Tebbit and his wife spoke with great courage about a very difficult episode in their lives.

“Norman was badly injured in the blast and Margaret was paralysed for the rest of her life.

“I know them both very well and I have the greatest admiration for the manner in which they refused to be bowed by the men of violence.”

Mr Tebbit said ‘surrender was not an option’ when he made a rare public appearance in the province in 2001 to support the UUP man’s election campaign.

Speaking to the Guardian at the Dunadry, he said the IRA’s campaign was ‘doomed’ before a single shot was fired.

“When I was in hospital with my wife I saw some people who just couldn’t take it. They couldn’t cope and turned their faces to the wall.

“My wife gets very nervous so I don’t come to the province very often, but if we hide away from the world then these people have won. That can’t happen.”

Case closed, then. Well, it depended who you asked.

Martin Meehan was happy to stand by Magee - and insisted that he would not be ‘shamed’ into concealing their long friendship.

“Me and Pat go back a lot of years and he is a true friend,” said the former IRA man.

“I was the Officer Commanding of the internees in the Kesh and he served under me so I was honoured to welcome him home as a comrade.

“He was always a quiet and reserved person so I was a bit surprised when he agreed to be interviewed - but I thought he spoke very well.

“He spoke like a true soldier. As far as he was concerned he was taking the war to the British Cabinet.

“In my opinion he is a hero - an icon for the republican community.

“If you look back at the Second World War, the French Resistance were classed as terrorists when they took the war to the Germans, but now history tells a different story.”

But Mr Meehan stressed that ‘no-one takes any pleasure’ from those decades of bloodshed.

“In a sense the past is a big black hole. Nobody glorifies in the operations they were involved in.

“I’m a firm believer in conflict resolution, which is why people like myself and Pat Magee work with groups like Causeway and Glencree.”

Indeed, it was during a residential session in Wicklow working with victims of paramilitary violence that Martin Meehan inadvertently became involved in the aftermath of Brighton.

“I was approached by Jo Berry who said she was very keen to meet the man who killed her father in the bomb.

“Pat was still inside at this stage and initially he was reluctant to meet her, but when he came out I eventually managed to set up a meeting and they both benefited enormously from it.

“I honestly believe that is the way forward.

“After years of violence we all have baggage - including the British Government - but why should we continue to carry it if we genuinely want to move forward?

“We have to make politics work and I’m committed to that 150 per cent.”

But former UUP Mayor Adrian Watson, who crossed swords with the veteran Sinn Fein rep on numerous occasions at the Steeple, was far from convinced that the ‘leopard had changed its spots’.

“Past actions peak louder than empty words,” he said.

“I think this man owes the people of this Borough an apology for flaunting himself with a man like Patrick Magee,” he stormed.

“For someone who claims to be a public representative to warmly embrace the man behind the barbaric killing of innocent people is truly reprehensible.

“The IRA pride themselves on their shameful record of murder and mutilation in the name of Ireland.

“Sinn Fein may speak about new beginnings and equality, but the hundreds of families devastated by their campaign of death will not be air-brushed out of history.

“So if Martin Meehan wants to hug and joke with a mass killer, surely that speaks volumes about his world view.”

He added that this had been further underlined by the former Provo’s bitter condemnation of a council decision to grant £75,000 to the Ulster Scots Trust instead of a project in Rathenraw.

Mr Meehan branded it ‘discrimination’, adding that it was a ‘thundering disgrace’ that nationalists had to wait for unionists to ‘throw some crumbs from the table’.

“It’s incredible that a man who openly embraces the culture of blind hatred feels he can take a swipe at a decision purely on the grounds of religion.

“Like his old friends in the IRA, it is clear that Martin Meehan’s bigotry ‘hasn’t gone away’.”

But the republican rep would not be swayed.

“My view is that Pat Magee - on witnessing first hand the injustices, inequality, collusion, internment and second class citizenship thrust upon the nationalist people within this sectarian statelet - was a man who had the courage to challenge the might of the British Empire in his fight for justice and freedom,” said Mr Meehan.

“He’s so unlike Adrian Watson, who portrays verbally his undying loyalty but did not have the courage of his conviction to join and fight for any of the Crown forces.

“Instead, Mr Watson chose to sit, spoof and let others do their dirty work on his behalf.”

Peace and reconciliation can only go so far, it seems!

That’s the trouble with perspective. The view changes dramatically depending on where you are standing.

Martin Meehan held his council seat in Antrim for a single term. He died in 2007.

David Burnside lost his Westminster seat too, but was elected to the Assembly. He resigned that seat in 2009 to pursue business interests in London.

Adrian Watson resigned from council to take a seat at Stormont. He failed to retain it in 2016, ending a long run in office which had started back in 1997.

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