'Trade-off' between UK business interests in Libya and compensation fight denied
Britain's former ambassador to Libya has denied there was a "trade-off" between the UK's business interests in the country and the fight for compensation for victims of IRA Semtex supplied by Muammar Gaddafi.
But Sir Vincent Fean said that a decision was taken by Tony Blair's administration "not to take up the cudgels on behalf of the victims directly" after relations with Gaddafi's regime were restored in the wake of Libya's 2003 decision to renounce support for terrorism.
The retired ambassador was giving evidence to an inquiry by the House of Commons Northern Ireland Committee into the failure to secure compensation for the British victims, who were locked out of a 2008 deal which saw around £1 billion go to US victims of Libyan-sponsored terror.
Ex-MP Andrew MacKinlay, who went to Tripoli in 2009 as part of a parliamentary delegation to seek compensation, described the Government's approach to the Gaddafi regime as "craven" and said he was "totally bewildered" that the UK had been unable to secure a similar deal. He was convinced a deal might have been available if Gordon Brown had thrown his administration's weight behind the delegation by appointing a minister to head it.
Sir Vincent told the committee that, while he was involved in efforts to secure justice for murdered police officer Yvonne Fletcher and the relatives of those who died in the Lockerbie bombing, a decision had been taken before his arrival in post in 2006 that the government would not assume direct responsibility for seeking compensation for victims of the Semtex explosives supplied by Libya during the 1980s and 1990s.
The victims' lawyer Jason McCue has previously accused Mr Blair and Mr Brown of putting commercial and diplomatic interests ahead of justice in their dealings with Gaddafi.
And the committee last week called for written evidence from Mr Blair about a 2008 email from Sir Vincent, which Mr McCue claims is proof that the former prime minister was working with then US president George Bush and Gaddafi to bring about an agreement which "deprived all the British citizens of compensation".
Asked by committee member Lady Sylvia Hermon whether oil and defence deals mentioned in the email were "obstacles" to obtaining compensation for victims of IRA violence, the former ambassador said: "I did not see them as obstacles competing in order of priority. I did not see them in that way." Part of his job as ambassador was "to promote legitimate business between British businesses and Libya", he said.
Sir Vincent read the committee a statement previously issued by Mr Blair's office in response to the publication of his email, which said the former PM "did not have any involvement with the terms of the compensation, nor any discussion with President Bush on the matter".
He said he "deeply regretted" a decision by the US authorities not to include the UK victims in the 2008 compensation deal, following a request from the British government for them to do so.
"The US had a large amount of influence on Libya and joining with them would have increased the chances of success, but the US - for reasons I don't understand - didn't want to associate the UK victims with the US victims," he said.
The 2008 deal meant British victims were no longer able to pursue Libya in the US courts and that Tripoli was able to regard their compensation claim as a matter of "goodwill and clearing the decks", said Sir Vincent. However, he believed there was a "possibility" of a gesture from the Libyan authorities in 2009 and said that it was "important" that the issue should be raised again once a stable government has been installed in Libya.
Mr MacKinlay said he was "very disappointed" that David Cameron's administration had not pushed for compensation since 2010, and said a British minister should fly to Libya immediately to start talks with the new government in Tripoli on a deal.
He urged the committee to demand "full disclosure" about the decision to allow Gaddafi's former foreign minister Moussa Koussa to leave for exile in Qatar just three days after fleeing to Britain during the 2011 revolution, as "his fingerprints would have been all over the supply of Semtex and other weaponry to the IRA".
The former Labour MP said the case for compensation was "compelling and overwhelming" and it was "amazing" that no minister had taken up the victims' cause. He accused ministers of being "sheep-like" in taking advice from civil servants and intelligence agencies who had been involved in the process of bringing Gaddafi "in from the cold".
"I think some of them got too cosy with the regime and didn't see priorities," said Mr MacKinlay.
"After Gaddafi came in from the cold, there was extensive commercial probing, particularly in relation to oil. There were senior politicians who had courted Gaddafi and his son Saif. There were far too many people and agencies who would have been embarrassed if Moussa Koussa had been examined in either a British or international court."
Asked which individuals might have been embarrassed by Koussa's evidence, Mr MacKinlay named Mr Blair, who he said had "a very close relationship" with Gaddafi, particularly after leaving office. The ex-MP claimed that Sir Vincent appeared "exasperated and bewildered" by the frequency of Mr Blair's visits to Tripoli, though this was denied by the ambassador himself, who recalled three Blair visits between 2007 and 2010.
Mr MacKinlay said Mr Brown agreed to meet victims' representatives in 2008, only for the "embarrassing" meeting to be cut short within less than five minutes during which the PM showed "a lack of any real interest".