By Fiona O’Cleirigh | 2 August 2011
Britain was nearing a deal with Libya over its supply of explosives to the IRA before the country became mired in civil war this year.
A parliamentary delegation to Tripoli, Libya’s capital, in 2009 made progress in securing compensation for 160 victims of the Provisional IRA, which received arms from Libya.
Jeffrey Donaldson, Democratic Unionist MP, who was one of the delegates, said: “The deal was progressing towards a conclusion. Principles were being agreed. The shape of the package was being discussed but precise figures had not been agreed.”
“Gaddafi’s explosives didn’t just destroy lives, but also property, town centres and city centres” – Jeffrey Donaldson, Democratic Unionist MP
The delegation, led by Lord Brennan, the barrister who represented relatives of victims of the 1998 Omagh bombing, was convened in September 2009 by the Foreign Office following a seven-year campaign by terrorist victims in Northern Ireland and Jason McCue, the human-rights solicitor. Other delegates included Nigel Dodds, also a Democratic Unionist MP, Lord Bew, the political historian, and Andrew MacKinley, then a Labour MP.
Prospects for a deal seemed to improve in August 2009 with the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the 1988 bombing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie.
William Frazer, director of Families Acting for Innocent Relatives, said that previously the UK government, when Tony Blair was prime minister, had been unhelpful over seeking compensation from Libya for victims of IRA terrorism. He said: “Tony Blair was no help whatsoever, and refused to do anything for us. The Foreign Office said the book was closed and that was it.”
Frazer also said that he wrote to Bertie Ahern, then the Irish taoiseach (or prime minister), and Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs in 2004, requesting help over the issue. Dermot Ahern, then Ireland’s foreign minister, declined the request.
The Irish government refused, saying that it wanted to develop cattle exports to Libya.
However, the reason given for the refusal is a mystery. Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, told Exaro that Ireland makes no cattle sales to Libya. Ireland’s meat exports to Libya ended in 1996, as a result of the BSE “mad cow” disease crisis in the UK.
But by 2009, as Anglo-Libyan relations grew warmer, the UK government had changed its mind. According to several sources, the then UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, decided that his government should make a real effort to seek such a deal with Libya over its past help to the Provisional IRA.
The Foreign Office set up the “Libya-Northern Ireland compensation unit”, which has since become the “reconciliation unit”. According to Bew, it wanted to send its own team to Libya, but the country’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, insisted on a delegation of only British parliamentarians.
In October 2009, the delegation spent a weekend in Tripoli, and, according to delegates, they paid their own expenses. They held meetings with Libyan parliamentarians and one minister, who, Donaldson said, reported to the Libyan leader’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.
Bew, who was keen on increasing education ties between Libya and Northern Ireland, visited the British Council in Tripoli, which, he said, taught English to thousands of Libyans.
Although Gaddafi was resistant to the idea of compensation for Irish terrorist victims, he was nonetheless seeking reconciliation, and work on a reparation deal began. One option was a huge Libyan investment to develop Northern Ireland’s oil industry.
Donaldson told Exaro that he saw it as important for any deal to cover three points: settlement of specific claims from around 160 people, creation of a fund to support other innocent victims of IRA terrorism, and Libyan investment in Northern Ireland generally.
He said: “Gaddafi’s explosives didn’t just destroy lives, but also property, town centres and city centres.”
But, he added, the UK closed lines to Gaddafi this year when he began firing on his own people, which led to Nato airstrikes aimed at helping rebels overthrow him. Meanwhile, the opposition National Transitional Council has signed an agreement over the issue of Irish terror victims.
Dodds suggested earlier this year in Parliament that frozen assets of the Libyan regime should be used to compensate IRA victims, but David Cameron, prime minister, cast doubt about whether the money could be used in this way.