Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Only here could a warmonger be applauded for talking peace

I wonder was Foreign Secretary David Miliband disappointed by the muted reaction to his revelation about the release of the alleged Lockerbie bomber in the Commons on Monday.

Of course, MPs had no time for talk about Libya, justice, terrorism and the like on the day, being in a hubbub of anger and anxiety at Parliamentary auditor Sir Thomas Legge cheekily suggesting they should pay back the wads of public money which they ought not to have been allowed to trouser in the first place.

On this side of the water, the political news had no room for anything other than US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton taking time out from her world tour drumming up support for war to patronise MLAs with a plea for peace.

"The value of peace isn't only the absence of violence," she helpfully explained. Never thought of that.

There was dancing in the streets of downtown Kabul when word came through of this glowing new insight.

Well, all right, there wasn't But there might have been if locals hadn't been reluctant to venture outdoors in celebratory mood for fear of being mistaken for revellers at a wedding party and deemed legitimate targets for instant obliteration by bombs from the drones sent by Clinton and her colleagues to wheel and turn in the menacing skies above.

Not that anybody at Stormont had the bad taste to mention that sort of thing. All was peace and light-mindedness.

Indeed, it was difficult to suppress a wistful hope that we might one day see the leaders of nationalism and unionism display in other matters, too, the perfect co-ordination with which they lept to their feet to perform the traditional standing ovation.

The television reception in our house wasn't of the best on Monday, but I'm not sure I didn't see a tear glistening in the eyes of some, particularly on the nationalist benches, as they pounded their palms to beat the band.

Gregory Campbell and Willie McCrea took some stick from one nationalist colleague for skedaddling before the cadences of the Clinton homily had faded.

The chap seemed quite distraught. "They didn't clap and walked out . . . after Hillary's address." They'd cut the quality, rapscallions like that.

Clinton had spent the previous night at Chequers mulling over "matters of mutual interest" with Gordon Brown. They will have had a lot to munch on with the cocoa and biscuits.

US General Stanley McChrystal, the new overall commander of the occupation forces in Afghanistan, wants other Nato countries to contribute substantially to the additional 30,000 troops which he says he needs to secure the main urban areas. (McChrystal, to the reported chagrin of President Obama, has written off the chances of holding significant areas of the countryside.) British military supremo General Sir David Richards agrees that something drastic needs to be done to ward off the "terrifying prospect" of a Nato defeat.

But, so far, Brown has only offered "up to 1,000" extra soldiers - nowhere near enough for the liking of either general. As to whether Clinton convinced the premier to show a bit more commitment to violence in the region, we must wait and see.

The other urgent issue on the agenda at Chequers will have been Lockerbie.

As Clinton arrived, relations between London and Washington had reached their lowest ebb since New Labour won office 12 years ago. This had been evidenced during Brown's visit to New York and Pittsburgh last month, when he was snubbed five times by the White House as he pleaded for a few moments of face time with Obama.

The Americans weren't hiding their anger at the release of the alleged bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. It is this which throws intriguing light on Miliband's admission to MPs the following day that the UK Government had supported the release of the alleged bomber because his death in a Scottish prison might have damaged British economic interests in Libya.

The Government, in advance of the decision of Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill to free al-Magrahi, had told both Libya and the Edinburgh administration that it backed the release "as a matter of policy".

This stands in stark contradiction to previous claims by ministers that "no one" (Ed Balls) had wanted the Libyan freed. (Is it possible that al-Megrahi was released because it's highly unlikely he had anything to do with the bombing? Don't be silly.)

Few will disagree with Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague's verdict that New Labour's approach to Lockerbie has been characterised by confusion and obfuscation".

So much so, it's hard to say whether Miliband will have been pleased, relieved or disappointed that his statement on Monday hit no headlines.

More cynical observers than myself have suggested that Brown may have been given the go-ahead to draw a line under the Lockerbie fractiousness and come clean about its manoeuvring over the al-Megrahi release in exchange for agreement to toss a few thousand more British squaddies into the Afghan mincing machine.

Maybe so.

On the other hand, there are no ifs or buts about the fact that, from the point of view of your travelling warmonger, Northern Ireland is a darlin' place.

Nobody howls with merriment or anger if you lecture the locals about the meaning of peace.

That, of course, is why she came. Wouldn't get away with it anywhere else in the world.

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