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UK backs IRA victims’ Libya claims

IRAIn the aftermath of the Megrahi contretemps in the UK which at present shows little sign of abating, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been forced to row back from his earlier refusnik position by offering “dedicated Foreign Office support” to the families of victims of IRA bombings whose campaign for compensation from Libya has been given an unexpected fillip by the controversy. The IRA’s relationship with President Gaddaffi first became apparent in March 1973 when the Irish navy boarded The Claudia off the Waterford coast and found five tonnes of weaponry supplied by the Libyan government. Semtex supplied by Libya became the IRA’s useful weapon is attacks such as the Enniskillen bomb in 1987 which killed 11, the Ballygawley bus bombing in 1988 which killed eight soldiers, the mortar attack at Downing Street in 1991 when the IRA tried to wipe out John Major’s Cabinet, the Warrington bombing and about 250 other booby-trap bombings.

Previously, in an October 2008 letter to a lawyer representing IRA victims whose loved ones were killed with Semtex supplied by Libya, Brown argued that it was “inappropriate” for him to lobby President Muammar Gaddafi on he issue of compensation, partly because trade and Tripoli’s co-operation in the battle against extremism might be affected (While the UK-Libya relationship does indeed include trade, bilateral co-operation is now wide-ranging on many levels, particularly in the fight against terrorism,” he wrote in the letters, which were released by the prime minister’s office earlier on Sunday. “I believe it is in all our interests for this co-operation to continue”). The Prime Minister announced he was setting up a dedicated Foreign Office team to assist the victims. He went on to state hat “it is clear that we are taking what action we believe is necessary to support the families in the difficult but necessary attempt to represent themselves with the Libyan authorities.” The victims’ lawyer Jason McCue said he was “overjoyed” by the decision. Libya was less enthused – Gaddafi’s son Saif says Libya will fight any claims in the courts, saying “Anybody can knock at our door and ask for money. But you go to the court, we have lawyers.”

The issue of compensation from Libya raises some interesting and not easily resolved questions which are unlikely to have been considered in depth by Number 10 in fire-fighting mode. The first and most obvious one is whether these actions are a good idea. While some would argue that civil actions may empower the victims of future terrorist atrocities and provide a new weapon against terrorism and human rights abuses around the world and contribute to undermining terrorist organisations and malevolent regimes financially where the normal legal process has failed, there is a larger question of whether they are an appropriate response to mass political criminality. While most of us would have welcomed the Belfast high court decision to support a civil lawsuit brought by 12 families of victims of the 1998 Omagh bombing against members of the Real IRA, we can also feel justifiably queasy about the lower burden of proof required in such cases. This lowered benchmark offers a poor substitute for criminal justice for crimes of this magnitude a socio-politial import. They punish historically significant acts but cannot conclusively prove guilt. A related problem is that of causation which did not arise to the same degree in elation to Omagh – to what extent can anyone be certain that Libyan semtex was responsible for a given atrocity when presumably it was not the IRA’s exclusive supplier of armaments?

Another obvious problem is that of hypocrisy – is it justifiable to be able to sue Libya but not the terrorist organizations who actually used the semtex, the Sinn Féin and PUP leadership or the security forces who infiltrated them but failed to stop such attacks? It also raises the possibility of seeking compensation from the Americans who funded the IRA over a number of years. Given the support historically given by the US and UK to the likes of Nicaraguan contras of Massoud’s Northern Alliance before the War on Terror, will Downing St and Washington regret their opportunism on this issue? That something is hypocritical should not on its own damn it. It may be the case that the victims of these crimes get compensation and acknowledgement from Libya for the wrong done to it. Nevertheless, one can ask what pressing public need there beyond this to revive one link in a causative chain for something that happened 30 years ago while at the same time ignoring greater degrees of culpability elsewhere.

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