Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Ed Curran: Libya an eerie reminder of catastrophic Iraqi invasion

Protesters demonstrate against the bombing of Libya outside Downing Street

We can be forgiven for watching the unfolding events in Libya with scepticism and apprehension.

The images of British fighter planes and US missiles launched into the night sky at faraway targets have become all too familiar to us all in the past two decades. For Baghdad read Tripoli, for Saddam Hussein read Muammar Gaddafi. For an end to conflict in the Arab world, search in vain.

Exactly eight years ago, I happened to be in New York on St Patrick’s Day. George Bush and Tony Blair were on the verge of mounting their offensive in Iraq. Almost to the day, and all these years later, a new generation of western political leaders are confronting another tyrannical regime with all the comfort of right on their side but no surety of victory in sight.

Just as the massive bombardment of Baghdad did not bring Saddam to heel overnight, so we are entitled to be sceptical that the 2011 offensive will mean a swift end to Gaddafi, though we must all hope it will.

Gaddafi appears one of the most elusive and unpredictable dictators of them all.

One British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, supported air strikes against him and Tripoli. Another Prime Minister, Tony Blair, brought him in from the cold.

A third, Gordon Brown, along with the Scottish Assembly, made another deal over the Lockerbie bomber. Now a fourth, David Cameron, is at war with him.

Libya is much closer to home than Iraq for more reasons than simply geography. Colonel Gaddafi is a man we know well, not least in Northern Ireland, because of the damage he has indirectly inflicted on our society.

He has played a brutal role in modern Irish history, getting his own back on the British by promoting terrorism in Northern Ireland. While the IRA were the main benefactors, I am old enough to recall that there were even loyalist leaders in the early 1970s who travelled to Tripoli to see if he would support them as well.

Little or nothing appeared to come from those contacts but the same could not be said of the aid which he gave in money, weapons and explosives to the IRA.

It is worth recalling the scale of Gaddafi’s weaponry.

First, he dealt in the early 1970s with the since deceased IRA leader Joe Cahill, who was arrested on board the arms-smuggling vessel Claudia off the Waterford coast. The most deadly weapons consignments in the 1980s were reported to be enough to arm two infantry battalions.

When the Eksund was boarded by Irish and French authorities in 1987, it was found to contain 120 tonnes of weapons, including 36 RPGs, 1,000 detonators, 20 SAM missiles, Semtex explosive and a million rounds of ammunition.

Two similar huge consignments of weaponry reached the IRA — with which they hoped to shoot down helicopters. Gaddafi is also believed to have given millions of pounds.

Somewhere in Libya may still lie the records of Gaddafi’s extensive involvement in Northern Ireland.

Lost in the noise of war are the efforts of Foreign Office diplomats and local Ulster politicians to extract compensation from the Gaddafi regime.

If Gaddafi were to survive, it is impossible to see him reaching any future accommodation with Britain. If, as is more likely, Gaddafi falls, it is hard to see anyone succeeding him who might compensate people here.

Sadly, his victims abroad, never mind those he has already killed amongst his own people, may never exact the compensation that is long overdue from his evil regime.

As for now, we can only watch. Experience of conflict tells us that nothing is simple and solutions are hard to find at the point of a gun. On the face of it, Libya looks irrevocably split. The bitterness between communities and districts runs deeper by the day.

The Libyan conflict may be restricted from the sky but it will only be stopped on the ground.

The dangers of foreign intervention are written on the gravestones of the thousands who have already perished in other conflicts, from Helmand province in Afghanistan to the streets of Baghdad.

Eight years ago it was only the start of war and a long haul in Iraq. We know to our universal cost how easy conflicts are to start and how difficult it has become to end them.

We must all hope there is no repeat in store in Libya, but can anyone be certain?

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