There Will Be Fire: Margaret Thatcher, the IRA, and Two Minutes That Changed History

Image of There Will Be Fire: Margaret Thatcher, the IRA, and Two Minutes That Changed History
Release Date: 
April 4, 2023
G.P. Putnam's Sons
Reviewed by: 

Rory Carroll, a Dublin-based foreign correspondent for the Guardian, has written a nonfiction book that is as adrenaline-fueled and heart-stopping as any piece of fiction one can imagine from Irish crime novelists like Tana French or Ken Bruen. Carroll was 12 years old in 1984 when the IRA came within a few feet of killing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her hotel room in the Grand in Brighton. He never forgot the horror of that night.

When the bombing of the Grand Hotel occurred in 1984, the euphemistically named Troubles had claimed more than 2,500 lives. For years, Protestants, using unionism as an excuse, had marginalized and killed Catholics. And the majority Catholic IRA had kneecapped, shot, and bombed British soldiers and Protestant citizens, mainly in Northern Ireland in the spirit of uniting Ireland and erasing its connection to Britain.

In George Orwell’s iconic year, 1984, the IRA was determined to unnerve the people of England and to blow up the head of the British government. The IRA had seen some violent success in this sphere before. In 1979, shortly after his 79th birthday, Lord Mountbatten, the great-grandson of Queen Victoria, was killed by an IRA bomb as he was vacationing with family and friends on his boat in Mullaghmore Bay, near Sligo.

A long and violent history of British atrocity and indifference—from the invasions of Henry II and Henry VIII to the bloody massacres of Cromwell and the British government’s seeming indifference during the mass starvation of the Great Hunger of the mid-19th century—led to Mountbatten’s assassination. But the plan to kill Margaret Thatcher was more daring and more spectacular than any act of terrorism the IRA had ever attempted.

In the course of his narrative, Carroll offers a concise and lucid summary of the fraught history of England and Ireland, leading toward 1969 when, in the shadow of the U. S. civil rights movement, Protestant and Catholic mobs clashed in Northern Ireland, giving birth to soldiers and tear gas, guns and bombs. He takes the reader through a wide range of characters and a large landscape—the Machiavellian maneuverings of Gerry Adams, the self-martyring of Bobby Sands and other IRA prisoners, the gunrunning ambitions of Whitey Bulger, and the involvement of Muammar Kaddafi, who sought vengeance against the British Empire. There is even a Catholic priest who did enough to support violence and murder that any reader might imagine him fairly locked behind bars with the bomb makers and gunmen.

With a magnetizing sense of character and plot, Carroll recounts the story of one of history’s explosive near-misses. In the course of telling the tale, he shapes the characters of British government officials, IRA bombers, innocent victims, and the detectives who hunted down the murderers. Carroll brings these disparate characters—the paradigmatic IRA leader Gerry Adams, the stoical bomb expert Patrick Magee, the iron-willed Margaret Thatcher, and the dogged detective Jack Reece—to vivid life.

Carroll should be applauded for much in this compelling and informative narrative. For one, it is absolutely gripping from first page to last. Second, it explains a complex history, crime, and manhunt in terms that are always lucid without ever oversimplifying the actions or motives or political ramifications. Most importantly, though, Carroll never pushes parenthetical judgments into the story. With a skillful journalistic distance and authority, he depicts bombers, politicians, and detectives with the same even tone. Rather than carve conclusions into his tale, he allows readers to make up their own minds about self-proclaimed patriots and tough-minded politicians. Most readers will likely end up assigning guilt to the zealots who rationalized the maiming and murders of innocents. And even if no Yeatsian terrible beauty was born from the IRA violence, things were “changed utterly.”

Carroll’s nonfiction account of this IRA act of terrorism might have the sadness and heart-wrenching emptiness of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock in its shadow. And it might have some of the same final incongruities. For all the effort Margaret Thatcher gave to fighting the IRA and to keeping Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom, she also laid the conservative groundwork that led—in 2016—to Brexit. Carroll’s final sentence might say it all. “There is perhaps no better illustration of the complexity of the Troubles: in the end it may be Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, not IRA bombs, that delivers a united Ireland.”