Gordon Brown feels heat after snubbing IRA victims' plea for Libya payout

Gordon Brown sought yesterday to limit the damage caused by the disclosure that he had told victims of the IRA that it was not “appropriate” for him to help them to seek compensation from Libya.

The Prime Minister insisted that he cared “enormously” about victims and would provide government assistance in seeking direct talks with Colonel Gaddafi. His new position is in stark contrast to previous official attitudes faced by the victims of Semtex used by the IRA and supplied by Libya.

Lawyers representing 138 British victims of IRA attacks in a claim against Libya had asked Mr Brown to open negotiations for compensation. Semtex supplied by Libya was used by the IRA in at least ten of its worst attacks, including the bombing of Harrods in 1983, and Warrington and the City of London in 1993. It was also used by the Real IRA at Omagh in 1998.

Mr Brown said that it would not be “appropriate” for the British Government to negotiate with Libya. Bill Rammell, a Foreign Office minister, suggested in a letter to one victim that the Government’s refusal to intervene was based at least partly on ensuring access to Libya’s massive reserves of oil and gas. He told Jonathan Ganesh, a security guard who was badly injured in the IRA attack on Canary Wharf in 1996, which killed two of his friends, that “Libya has genuinely become an important international partner for the UK on many levels”.

After the correspondence was released, Mr Brown said that he would provide dedicated Foreign Office staff to assist the victims, and diplomats at the British Embassy in Tripoli would accompany and advise them when they travelled to Libya to seek direct talks within the next few weeks.

Speaking in Berlin, where he was holding talks with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, Mr Brown said: “I care enormously about the impact of IRA terror on victims and their families and on our communities.”

Successive governments had raised the issue of Libyan support for the IRA, including the supply of Semtex, over the past two decades, Mr Brown said. But the Government judged that the most effective means of helping those seeking compensation was not through official negotiations with the Libyan authorities, but supporting the families in their legal battle.

A cross-party group of MPs is now preparing to travel to Tripoli for talks with the Libyan authorities about compensation. William Hague, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, said: “The Prime Minister’s announcement is a stunning admission that the Government has failed to support the families of the victims of IRA terrorism in their pursuit of compensation from Libya. This U-turn comes only after today’s reports that Gordon Brown was personally involved in a decision not to engage Libya on this issue. The British Government should have provided active support as a matter of course, not as a result of public pressure. But Gordon Brown and the Government he leads have long lost their moral compass.”

Mr Hague said that the issue was “another example of the disastrous mess and muddle” in which ministers found themselves over the release of Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber. It also emerged that British oil companies hoping to win contracts in Libya were asked to contribute to a fund to compensate American victims of terrorism, including the Lockerbie bombing. Libya paid $1.5 billion (£900 million) into the fund with the United States to normalise relations between the countries last October. Colonel Gaddafi refused to use state funds and sought to recoup the money through “donations” from foreign companies hoping to exploit Libya’s reserves.

British companies including BP and Shell have already won contracts in Libya, although it is not known whether they agreed to contribute. Dr Shokri Ghanem, chairman of Libya’s National Oil Corporation, confirmed last year that foreign oil companies were asked to pay into it.

Mr Ghanem, who is close to Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saif, said that Libya was “asking everyone to contribute — some other friendly countries, governments, all the companies — oil and non-oil, non-US, US”.

The US has said that no money from taxpayers was used to pay its $300 million contribution to the fund to compensate victims of its air raids on Tripoli in 1986.

Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Tripoli, said that the compensation deal had allowed George Bush to get permission from Congress to appoint an ambassador to Libya and to reopen its embassy.

Mr Ganesh and Michelle Williams, whose parents were killed alongside seven other innocent people in an explosion at a Belfast fishmonger’s in 1993. attended a meeting with Mr Brown last November to ask him to press Libya for compensation.

Andrew MacKinlay, a Labour member of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee who organised the meeting, said: “I can only conclude that this was because there was some bigger picture being framed bilaterally between London and Tripoli.” Mr MacKinlay said he had been left “embarrassed” by Mr Brown’s response during the meeting, which lasted for less than an hour. “As far as I can recall he didn’t look at any of us in the eye or face to face,” he said. “He kept his head down throughout.”

Mr Hague said that the Foreign Office had told him in the past that it had attempted to have British victims included in the deal between Libya and the United States.

Ed Balls, the Prime Minister’s close ally, acknowledged that British companies had lobbied the Government over trade with Libya but insisted there was no evidence that they had swayed its decisions. “Nobody is saying — including in the case of compensation — that trade or oil or economics was getting in the way of doing the right thing,” he said. “When I have spoken to Gordon Brown, he has said to me in terms that in the end this is about foreign policy and tackling terrorism.”


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