Foreign Office pressed to fight for IRA victims

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair meeting Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi at his desert base outside Sirte south of Tripoli on 20 October 2011
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair meeting Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi at his desert base outside Sirte south of Tripoli on 20 October 2011

Foreign Office officials have denied failing to press Libya for compensation for IRA victims because recipients of its Semtex “are in government now in Northern Ireland”.

Senior officials yesterday firmly rejected the allegations from Kate Hoey during a bruising inquisition at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is holding an inquiry on Libya’s links with the IRA.

Last week victims’ campaigner Kenny Donaldson told the MPs that police had been blocked from questioning Martin McGuinness about potential links to the 1987 Enniskillen bombing – a claim which the Sinn Fein man rejects.

Ms Hoey, MP for Vauxhall, said to the Foreign Office officials yesterday: “It strikes me that while there is a political decision here, there is clearly a Foreign Office view on this that this is an awkward area.

“It’s going to affect trade and all sorts of things.”

She added: “Do you think deep down there is something else going on here? Do you think this is anything at all to do with the fact that some of the people who actually ordered the Semtex from the Libyans are in government now in Northern Ireland and there is a determination to protect the peace process...is absolutely sacrilege and therefore perhaps it is easier to drop the thing?”

Parliamentary Under Secretary Tobias Ellwood robustly rejected her claims.

He and his colleague Jonathan Dart, head of the Middle East and North Africa Desk, also rejected a string of claims made the week before about apparently viable routes of achieving compensation for IRA victims across the UK.

MPs and lawyers are pressing the case of hundreds of IRA victims who suffered at the hands of weaponry and Semtex supplied to the IRA by Libya’s late leader Colonel Gaddafi.

Lawyer Jason McCue – who spearheaded the groundbreaking civil action against those behind the Omagh bombing – told the committee last week:

:: That it is entirely acceptable under international law to tap the alleged £900m of Gaddafi’s assets currently frozen in the UK to compensate victims;

:: That the Libyan government is ready and willing to compensate the victims but that the UK Government refused to ask them;

:: That the UK Government failed to ask to be included in a successful action by the US government to seek compensation for American citizens of Libyan-sponsored terrorism.

However, the officials told MPs that every one of his claims was untrue, and that they would supply details in due course to prove it.

In a lengthy session, the committee repeatedly tried to get clarity on why there was such disparity between Mr McCue’s assertions and the Government’s, prompting North Down MP Sylvia Hermon to describe their answers as “confused and conflicted”.

The officials did not know how much in assets Gaddafi had squirrelled away in the UK, saying the Treasury had the information, but they were able to say that all interest is still being paid back to Libya, which MP Ian Paisley estimated to be some £200m per year.

They were able to say that all civil servants in Libya are being paid and the Libyan bank is operational, despite ongoing civil war there.

Both officials repeatedly insisted that the UK Government could not actively fight for victims’ compensation.

But despite repeated requests neither Mr Ellwood nor Mr Dart were able to give clarity on why the UK government succesfully pressed Libya for compensation for victims of the Lockerbie bombing and for the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher but by contrast refuses to act on behalf of victims of Libyan-armed IRA units - instead regarding their case as a “private” matter.

Mr Ellwood insisted that Foreign Office legal advisors had told them that it was not lawful under EU and UN law to liquidate any of Gaddafi’s assets for victims.

But Mr Dart said this was a political and not a legal decision that the Government had taken – a position both of them finally accepted to be true.

Mr Paisley put it to Mr Ellwood that “parliament is sovereign” over the Foreign Office and suggested that – just as the US had done – the Commons would be willing to pass legislation to disregard international law to secure Libyan compensation for its own citizens.

He described the Foreign Office unit tasked with helping victims as “a sop”, while Ms Hoey said it offered only “tea and sympathy” but no practical help.

Mr Ellwood said that a UN deal may resolve the civil war in the next month and pave the way for compensation talks.

And after much pressure from Lady Hermon, he appeared to give commitments to actively pursue compensation.

When the officials declined to offer details of dealings with Tony Blair, chairman Laurence Robertson said the former Prime Minister may be called to give evidence.

Speaking afterwards Kenny Donaldson of Innocent Victims United pressed the officials to make good on their promises to publish their legal advice to MPs.

“We ask, where is the legal advice which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Government are using in justifying their decision not to advance the legitimate compensation claims of victims affected by Libyan/PIRA terrorism? This legal advice needs to be published as a matter of urgency in demonstrating transparency on the part of the Government”.

Also speaking later, Victims campaigner Willie Frazer asked how the USA, France, and German governments were able to secure Libyan compensation for their citizens through the route Mr Elwood said was not legal.

“Its clear that the real reason why UK victims are now being excluded is down to the previous actions of Tony Blair who its clear made a deal to exclude UK victims at the expense of securing his own financial legacy,” he said.

“We would like to remind Mr Elwood that we visited USA and met with several senators including Senator Lautenberg who was involved in the negotiations to secure compensation for the US victims of Gadaffi.”

“Mr Lautenberg clearly stated to us his support for UK victims to be compensated but he indicated that Tony Blair was the chief stumbling block for this not happening”.

He said he is currently making plans to travel again to Libya to meet Abdullah Senussi, who was head of intelligence during the Gaddafi regime, and other key individuals, whom they believe have information which is key to victims pursuit of compensation and justice.

He called on the Foreign Office to assist his group in their plans.