23 years after Lockerbie, a father fights on for justice
David Benson, who brings his play about the Lockerbie disaster to the Queen's Festival, explains why the case fascinates him
My last visit to the Queen's Festival was in 1997 with my show Think No Evil of Us: My Life With Kenneth Williams, and one might reasonably expect to be asked why a man best known for impersonating dead camp comedians should now be appearing in a drama of intense seriousness.
I was living in Edinburgh when the most deadly terrorist atrocity in post-war British history occurred. On December 21, 1988, I was working on the door of a nightclub earning £10-a-night when one of the bouncers wandered over and whispered that a Jumbo jet had gone down in the borders. Soon the city was buzzing with stories of devastation at the scene: the pretty, secluded border town of Lockerbie and the land for miles around strewn with the dead and their belongings, seat-belted corpses left for days in trees and on roofs or to be stepped over on garden paths.
Nearly 23 years later, the events surrounding that atrocity formed the basis of a one-man show that I wrote and performed at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe and which I am privileged to be bringing to the Queen's Festival for one performance. The man whose story I tell is one touched as cruelly by the crime as it is possible to be. Dr Jim Swire's daughter, Flora McDonald Margaret Swire, was on Pan Am 103 from Heathrow to JFK the night before her 24th birthday.
Just before Christmas such flights are usually at capacity, but Flora was one of the unlucky recipients of a stroke of fortune: this flight had a substantial number of late cancellations; she was able to get a ticket for it at the last minute and so set off to spend the Christmas in New York with her boyfriend, Hart. Just 38 minutes after take-off, a bomb went off in the hold and the aircraft was lost, along with its 259 passengers and crew. Eleven people in Lockerbie were killed as the aircraft hit the ground.
The events are still fresh in the minds of everyone who lived through them. I performed the show earlier this year in the towns of Dumfries and Langholm, close to the heart of the catastrophe, and heard testimony from eye-witnesses in the audience.
A woman described seeing the fuselage crash with its jets still screaming as she washed her dishes; and how their cat, in its terror, tore round the walls of the living room like a motorcycle on a wall of death. There has since been a trial, a man was convicted of the crime, and compensation was paid to victims' families by the recently-overthrown Libyan regime.
So why is Jim Swire still fighting so doggedly in his 76th year and in defiance of many who have begged him to 'retire' and let his daughter rest in peace?
Because, in his view, justice has not been done. In fact, anyone who examines the events of the trial in the Netherlands will see that the prosecution case against Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhima was laughable, a grotesque parade of paid witnesses, corrupt evidence and dodgy 'experts'.
Fhima was totally cleared of involvement and, since the prosecution case was built on the fantasy that the two accused had acted in concert, al-Megrahi should have been found not guilty, too. Instead, he was sentenced to 20 years in a Scottish jail, later increased to 27 years, all the time protesting his innocence.
His release on 'compassionate' grounds was an opportunity for howls of manufactured outrage from politicians deeply relieved that the questions a second appeal would have raised would now, they hoped, never be asked. The findings of a three-year investigation by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which identified six major points suggesting a miscarriage of justice, would never be published and a largely compliant media would go on forever referring to al-Megrahi as the Lockerbie Bomber.
But the controversy refuses to go away. A phony 'humanitarian' invasion of Libya is raging as I write, with defenceless civilians in Sirte and elsewhere, under siege by forces we are paying for, with the Lockerbie bombing persistently held up as part-justification for the carnage.
In spite of the initial claims of Gaddafi regime members to have positive proof that he ordered the bombing, not a shred of evidence has been laid before our eyes. Meanwhile, Obama, Clinton and a nest of cynical senators in the USA repeatedly call for the dying al-Megrahi to be unhooked from his drips and oxygen mask to face a new, totally illegal trial in America, in spite of the fact that they accepted the verdict of the first. There is a special poignancy in bringing this play to a province whose people are no strangers to terrorism. To lose loved ones in criminal circumstances is to risk finding out how hard-hearted and cynical our guarantors of justice can be when the demands of truth run counter to the dark currents of Government business.
It cannot be easy for any politician to face a Jim Swire, or a Michael and Patsy Gallagher, or anyone motivated solely by finding the answer to the question: Who killed my beautiful child?
My play is an attempt to pay tribute to these reluctant, heroic campaigners and to show also what it costs them to pursue truth and justice, while retaining dignity, integrity and compassion - every virtue their tormentors lack.