Patrick Magee writes in his concluding postscript to his honest and open memoir how a moment in the middle of his life changed it. That moment was one of two that defines his life, at least in public terms.
With the first, this second one would mean nothing. The first is that Patrick Magee is the ‘Brighton Bomber’. He is the IRA man who blew up the Grand Hotel where the Conservative Party delegates were staying during their 1984 Conference.
Five were killed, some were left disabled and many others injured in the blast. One of those who lost their lives was Conservative MP and Deputy Chief-Whip Anthony Berry.
Magee’s life changing event was when Berry’s daughter Jo sought him out wanting to understand the motivation of the killer of her father. Brave decision. Challenging for the bomber. Those first few hours in a room with Jo Berry are what Magee describes as perhaps the most significant moment.
It certainly is in the book. If we divide the book into three. We get Magee’s formation personally and politically in family and his experiences of nationalist Belfast, his joining the IRA because he thought then and still thinks now that it was the only way to deal with British and Unionist oppressors. Then there was the experience of Long Kesh as a prisoner.
We then get his volunteering to be part of IRA campaigns in England, that pivotal moment of the Brighton Bomb and then his time in prison where he starts work on a PhD on how fictional novels about The Troubles misrepresents the Republican narrative and the real reasons for their campaign.
I found all of this a little bit of a trudge. For me it was slow. That might be because of my own upbringing in very different circumstances to Magee’s. I will come back to it though. That might be more important than I found it enjoyable.
For me the third section was where it all came alive. At that meeting with Jo Berry. From then on we have the memoir of a man who becomes a friend of the woman whose father he had killed. The rest of the book is about making space for reconciliation and as someone interested in such things I was fascinated.
Jo Berry’s courage, grace and generosity of spirit needs huge respect in all of this. She isn't soft writing about their dialogue in her Foreword. As well as Jo Berry, Magee finds Harvey Thomas also blown up in the bomb reaching out to him. Thomas is motivated to forgive by his Christian faith. Elsewhere forgiveness is recognised a difficult word.
All these questions fill the last third of the book as Magee and Berry continue their dialogue, find themselves in TV documentaries and speaking at various Universities and Peace platforms. We even find a couple of pages where Patrick and Jo speak at a 4 Corners festival event, though he calls the Festival after the name of that evening’s event - Listening To Our Enemies. More of that in another blog.
I found it all thought provoking and helpful in my own thinking. What was most challenging and most difficult is what is probably most needed.
Patrick Magee is called upon time after time to claim that the IRA military campaign is wrong. It will be a very difficult read if that is what you are looking for. Magee admits the apparent contradictions in himself - “My own conflict is that I stand over my actions and yet profoundly regret the hurt inflicted.”
As well as working tirelessly for peace, in these past 20 years, Patrick Magee has also been keen to be an apologist for the Republican campaign. This is the challenging part of the book. Yet, as we live through all our decade of centenaries and surmise how we might move forward with two very different stories, Magee might just highlight one of the keys to unlock a better future - “The last and perhaps greatest obstacle to a shared future is the battle of narrative.”
As a result of the engagement that both Jo Berry and Harvey Thomas has offered him, Magee has experienced the benefit of dialogue and contact. It has allowed him to humanise the other. I imagine it has been the kind of challenge to him as reading this book might be to many of the victims of the IRA. Narratives need shared. Understanding needs sought. Humanising each other’s other needs to result.
If you are interested in such then take on the challenge of this memoir.