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Lockerbie shows dangers that come with devolution

It's not my fault! How it must have tempted David Cameron to issue this defence last week. The Prime Minister, who visited the United States hoping to cement a friendship with President Obama, instead spent most of the trip answering questions about matters beyond his control.

Even the Tories' fiercest opponents could hardly expect him to don a frogman's outfit and stop oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico.

And, far from endorsing the release of the Lockerbie bomber by the Scottish Justice Minister last year, the PM - then leader of the Opposition - severely criticised Kenny MacAskill's decision. It didn't stop Cameron getting a grilling about BP's Deepwater oil spill. And allegations that a lucrative contract for the company secured Abdelbaset al-Megrahi's return to Libya, dominated his visit.

Cameron was not PM at the time, but the Americans have a right to be suspicious, given the chain of events. First Tony Blair paved the way for better relations with Libya by hinting that a prisoner transfer agreement could see Megrahi return home. Then BP lobbied the Government to conclude this arrangement. David Miliband, Foreign Secretary at the time, told Parliament that "British interests" would be damaged if the prisoner, who was suffering from prostate cancer, were to die in a Scottish jail.

Finally, Megrahi was released by the Scots' Justice Secretary on compassionate grounds, with an expectation that he would die in less than a year. BP duly clinched its £900m oil deal. A nationalist Scottish Executive, flexing its muscles and styling itself a 'government', was more than happy to boast that it had reached its decision independently.

When Kenny MacAskill appeared in front of the world's Press to deliver a crowing speech about the unique "humanity of the Scottish people", he didn't expect that his ruling would cause the SNP to crash in the polls. Nor could he anticipate that a full year later Megrahi would remain alive and American fury would be unabated.

MacAskill is now attempting to wriggle off the hook, claiming that he did not have "a great deal of discretion" over the matter and merely followed procedure. That's a stark contrast with 12 months ago when he revelled in the limelight.

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Meanwhile, First Minister Alex Salmond insists the decision was reached for the right reasons. In truth, the Scottish Executive, rather than showing strength and independence, seemed parochial and out of its depth. The UK Government, many observers concluded, had stitched it up like a kipper. Unfortunately for David Cameron, however crafty his predecessors might have appeared, the release was a classic example of short-termism. A year on, the BP connection is back in the spotlight, medical experts suggest that Megrahi could live for another decade and the US is seething that its closest ally let a mass-murderer swan off to claim adulation in the Middle East.

Megrahi's release shows that the Westminster Government can be powerless to prevent a devolved region making a decision which impacts directly upon UK foreign policy, or acts to the detriment of the national interest.

Although MacAskill probably had the tacit agreement of London, and pressure may even have been brought to bear on the Scottish Executive, he still had the potential to disrupt relationships between Britain and the US. As the Prime Minister returned from an uncomfortable first official visit to America, he had cause to contemplate the mercurial nature of devolution back home. Eleven years after its introduction to the UK, the consequences have not yet been fully explored or understood.

Owen Polley is a unionist blogger and commentator

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