Belfast Telegraph

Libyan conflict a blow for victims of Troubles

Whether Col Ghaddafi wins or loses his struggle to stay in power, it will be much more difficult for victims of IRA atrocities to win compensation from him, says Henry McDonald

In the 1980s Colonel Gaddafi "punished" Margaret Thatcher for her government's decision to allow the United States Air Force to use British bases from which to bomb Tripoli.

That "punishment" was the supply of war material to the Provisional IRA.

The Colonel's revenge was the export of tonnes of AK47 rifles, hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition, flame-throwers, surface-to-air-missiles, grenades and Semtex plastic explosive.

With that arsenal, the Provisionals ratcheted up their campaign of violence, not only in Northern Ireland but in English cities and Continental Europe.

Although one of the biggest arms shipments was compromised by a high-grade informer, other shipments significantly boosted the IRA's arsenal and wrought devastation on a grand scale in strategic locations such as the City of London.

There were many victims of Gaddafi's weaponry from not only Ireland but England and the United States.

A number of survivors got together in the last decade to take legal action against the Libyan regime. They included an American oceanographer injured in a bomb in London and relatives of people killed in explosions in Northern Ireland. Taking their cue from a group of victims from the Lockerbie massacre, they decided to sue the Libyan state in courts in the United States.

Their case was taken up by London-based lawyer Jason McCue, who was chief legal adviser to the Omagh families in their legal battle against the Real IRA and its leaders' culpability over the 1998 bomb atrocity in the Co Tyrone town.

The legal moves against Gaddafi and his role in prolonging the Troubles came at a time however of creeping rapprochement between Tripoli and the West.

Forever the survivor, Gaddafi announced he was abandoning his nuclear weapons programme as the Bush administration toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Within a few years of the Iraq invasion, Gaddafi was wooing Tony Blair (successfully it now seems), opening up the Libyan oil market to BP and eventually securing the release of the Lockerbie bomber from a Scottish prison.

The Colonel was no longer the "Mad Dog of the Middle East" as he was portrayed during the Reagan era, but a potential partner for trade and stability in the region.

Gaddafi's cynical re-branding as a man the West could now do business with posed a paradox for the IRA victims and their legal team: Would pressure from Britain for his regime to compensate these people ease off in the interest of realpolitik?

Or would the demand for recompense from these victims give Gaddafi a chance to demonstrate his goodwill towards the West, in particular Britain?

Those questions have become somewhat irrelevant amid the current crisis gripping Libya. Gaddafi is fighting for his life and the last thing on his mind at present would be the necessity to pay out compensation to IRA victims.

In addition, the outcome of the struggle for power will have a major impact on the cause of the victims.

If Gaddafi was to survive and defeat the Benghazi-based rebels, he would surely be in no mood to do the right thing by those who lost loved ones or were severely injured by his old IRA allies. Having endured a new wave of Allied bombing with British Typhoon and Tornado jets taking part in sorties against his armed forces, the dictator will be in a vengeful mood towards the UK. Angry, sullen and isolated, the Colonel would be unwilling to placate a group of victims who have had the support of David Cameron even before he became Prime Minister last year.

On the other hand, if the rebels win and Gaddafi is either jailed, killed or chased into exile the new, disparate and potentially fractious government will have other major priorities. Justice for the victims of Gaddafi's guns and bombs in the Irish Troubles will be far down their agenda. The rebels could argue that Gaddafi has been in power for more than 40 years and that his bad behaviour across the globe, including Northern Ireland, has nothing to do with them.

They may point to the millions Gaddafi and his crime family have salted away in foreign banks as the source of any future compensation.

As British, French and American jet fighters patrol the skies over Libya this week, it is clear that the conflict between the regime and its opponents is going to be strung out over weeks, possibly even months.

Which will only in turn string out over a much longer period the fight for justice among those who were the indirect victims of the Gaddafi tyranny.

However, Gaddafi's fate will not just be watched by those victims but the recipients of his largesse in the 1970s and 80s.

One outcome that might come to pass before the victims receive justice is that we may get a clearer picture of how deeply the IRA was involved with the Gaddafi regime.

If his government is toppled thanks to western air power providing an umbrella-in-the-sky to the rebels on the ground, a new, more open regime may open up the files on the Gaddafi era.

Before a penny is paid to the victims, we may find out how much the perpetrators received in terms of cash and hardware from Tripoli.

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