Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Why we cannot airbrush Libyan legacy from history

As a massive dissident IRA bomb is uncovered in South Armagh, Ed Curran argues that we must redouble efforts to hold Libya to account for its past sponsorship of republican terrorism

Perhaps, in the light of the controversy over the release of the Lockerbie bomber, we should revise the words of Flower of Scotland thus...

O flower of Scotland

When will we see

The like again

That killed so many

Your wee bit hill and glen

We stood against him

Gaddafi's bomber

But sent him homeward

Tae think again

The release of the bomber has embarrassed Scotland as nothing else has done. Yet we in Northern Ireland should not be surprised or upset because we have no idea how many hundreds of bombers and gunmen walk freely on our streets.

Many were never caught. Others released under the Good Friday Agreement will enjoy their freedom for the rest of their lives, long after the end of the jail terms they received and while their victims lie in graveyards in every county.

The 600lb bomb discovered in south Armagh this week underscores the terror which was heaped upon Northern Ireland by Colonel Gaddafi's arms shipments to the IRA.

It is a legacy of terror which dissident republicans evidently are keen to sustain.

Lockerbie was mass murder far beyond any single act of terrorism in our Troubles.

But set the release of one man, terminally ill in his last days of life, against the freedom granted to hundreds of terrorist killers and bombers with all their faculties of health and strength as happened here, and the controversy over Libya is put in a different perspective.

Some may wish the Libyan would have rotted in a Scottish jail but was he any more brutal in his actions than those who planted their bombs in Belfast, Monaghan, London, Enniskillen, Dublin or wherever over 30 years and never stopped to think how many lives would be lost?

Given experience here, we should not be in the least surprised that the Lockerbie bomber was set free and allowed to return home to die in Libya. We do not know the truth of what secret negotiations took place with Gaddafi just as we may never know the truth of who talked to whom and what was promised between governments and terrorisorganisations in Northern Ireland.

What difference is there really between some British Foreign Office diplomat shadily tripping about Tripoli and the government officials who negotiated behind the backs of people here while they were still being subjected to terror. Such is the way of the world, which is why much of the furore over the Lockerbie bomber is nothing less than hypocrisy.

My mind goes back to a dreary Sunday afternoon in the 1990s when the Conservative government of John Major was forced to admit it was in secret contact with the IRA. Then and now, as with Gordon Brown and Libya, there was much huffing and puffing and smokescreens galore.

No matter how unsavoury, unacceptable, or appalling the thought that governments might contemplate such deals, the reality is that they do, whether it is to gain a foothold in the Arab world of north Africa or to achieve peace in Northern Ireland.

If it means releasing someone such as the Lockerbie bomber, or having to stomach his welcome homecoming in Tripoli, so be it. But that should not be the end of the matter because we have so many victims of Gaddafi's terrorism still struggling to exact compensation and closure.

Muammar al-Gaddafi dealt his hand of death and destruction in cities, towns and villages across this province for over 30 years. We can never begin to measure the terror he delivered on those arms-smuggling vessels. He has not set foot in Northern Ireland but he will haunt it for generations to come.

First, there was his deal 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. Five tonnes of Libyan arms, ammunition and explosives were on board. It is believed three similar shipments got through to the IRA, including the infamous RPG rocket launchers. Next to arrive on those shores were the biggest and most deadly consignments of all in the mid-1980s, enough it is estimated 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, 1000 detonators, 20 SAM missiles, Semtex explosive and a million rounds of ammunition.

Two similar huge consignments of weaponry reached the IRA - Browning hand-guns, Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades, heavy machine guns, flamethrowers, Semtex plastic explosive and shoulder-held SAM missiles - with which the IRA hoped to shoot down helicopters. As well as these caches, the Libyans are believed to have given millions of pounds to the IRA to aid its cause.

General John de Chastelain and the decommissioning team who examined the IRA's arms dumps should know the true extent of Gaddafi's murderous support for terrorism here. The shipments from Libya have left a legacy of suffering in this small province.

The agony of families who lost loved ones cannot be air-brushed from the pictures of Gaddafi and Gordon Brown making up and shaking hands. The price extracted from Gaddafi is far from enough.

Appointing an official in Tripoli and a couple of others in the Foreign Office to look into the Northern Ireland connection is an excuse to do little or nothing.

The Labour Government is merely wringing its hands and the response of William Hague and the Tories is not much better.

The victims of Libya's cargoes of death will get nothing by way of compensation unless there are stronger, more determined voices raised right across Ireland, north and south, at Stormont and at Westminster.

This is a cause worth fighting for but it needs more political backbone and resolve than has been shown to date.

Gaddafi should not be allowed to escape the consequences of his murderous mind.

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