When first we practise to deceive!
(Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, can VI, xvii)
The UK Government brazenly maintains that there were no "deals" or "understandings" between it and the Libyan Government in relation to the repatriation of Abdelbaset Megrahi. That view is most assuredly not shared by high Libyan Government officials. The "deal in the desert" was intended to lead to Mr Megrahi's early return to Tripoli. But that was stymied by Downing Street and the Foreign Office's failure to appreciate that the decision on transfer of a prisoner in Scotland rested with the Scottish, not the UK, Government. And just to make matters worse, at the most inconvenient moment, the SNP had taken over the Scottish Government from Labour and so supine obedience to UK Labour Government wishes could no longer be guaranteed. That was when the deal started to fall apart, to the anger of the Libyans and the embarrassment of HMG.
Some of this is now coming into the public domain. An article in today's edition of The Sunday Times contains the following:
'Apart from the unfortunate Lockerbie families, everyone seems to have got what they wanted. Gadaffi and his son have their man. Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish justice secretary, who signed the release order, has burnished his humanitarian credentials. Gordon Brown has preserved Britain’s politically and economically valuable new relationship with Libya while avoiding any blame for the release. And American politicians have been able to bluster in protest while exercising none of their considerable clout to stop it happening.
'The whole exercise reeks of realpolitik and moral evasion.
'The reality is that Megrahi’s freedom is a product of the effort to bring Libya out of dangerous isolation. This is as much to America’s advantage as Britain’s, but Washington has too much baggage to be openly involved; it bombed Libya in 1986 in punishment for supporting terrorism, and Gadaffi remains a bogeyman to many Americans. So Britain takes the lead — except when it can devolve the dirty work onto a Scottish politician.
'A so-called “deal in the desert” reached between Gadaffi and Blair in a tent outside Tripoli in 2004 led to a broad rapprochement with Libya and a prisoner transfer agreement that Gadaffi saw, from the outset, as a means of bringing home Megrahi. The Libyans became increasingly angry, however, at what they regarded as British foot-dragging over the transfer.
'“They were furious with the Foreign Office because things were not panning out as they were told they would,” said a source close to the Scottish administration. “The Foreign Office had been telling the Libyans that they were confident the Scottish government would agree to their prisoner transfer request.”
'British officials strongly denied that they had put pressure on Scotland to release Megrahi — or signed the prisoner transfer agreement with Libya — in order to smooth the way for oil deals. But on the way home to Tripoli on Thursday, Saif seemed to contradict them. “In all commercial contracts for oil and gas with Britain, Megrahi was always on the negotiating table,” he said.
'There were anxieties in Edinburgh and Westminster when the Libyans raised the prospect of breaking off diplomatic relations, which in effect would have frozen all British dealings in Libya.
'“Look at what he’s done to Switzerland,” said Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya. “He [Gadaffi] can make life very unpleasant for us all.”
'Some of the secret background to Megrahi’s release has now emerged with the leak of a letter from Ivan Lewis, a junior minister at the Foreign Office, encouraging MacAskill to “consider” Libya’s application for Megrahi to be sent home. It is part of the political game of pass the parcel between Brown and Alex Salmond, the nationalist Scottish first minister.
'This began with a fiction that suited both sides. The prime minister claimed that the decision on whether to release the man convicted in a Scottish court of killing 270 people lay exclusively with ministers in the devolved Scottish administration.
'Brown, who has a Macavity reputation of knowing when to hide from no-win situations, realised his reputation could be damaged by any association with the decision on Megrahi’s fate. However, no political insider seriously believed that the Westminster government would leave a matter as sensitive to this to Salmond’s unpredictable justice minister. (...)
'Lewis’s leaked letter to MacAskill suggested otherwise. Writing on August 3, Lewis told MacAskill there was no legal reason not to accede to Libya’s request to transfer Megrahi into its custody under the terms of the treaty agreed between Tony Blair and Gadaffi in 2007.
'A source who saw the letter said Lewis added: “I hope on this basis you will now feel able to consider the Libyan application in accordance with the provisions of the prisoner transfer agreement.” The source said the Scottish government interpreted this as an attempt to influence MacAskill’s decision.'
A further article in The Sunday Times headed "Foreign Office ‘pushed for Lockerbie release’" is also worth reading in this context.
Tony Blair has now, of course, gone on record denying that there was any deal in the desert, at least as far as the repatriation of Megrahi was concerned. I know, because I've talked to them, that Libyan officials who took part came away with a different impression. If one wished to be generous to Mr Blair, one could perhaps adopt the view outlined in the following paragraph from an article in today's Scotland on Sunday:
'One senior Labour source suggested last night that while Blair would not have laid down the offer of Megrahi's release formally, he may have given that impression to Gaddafi. The source said: "Gaddafi wouldn't be the first person to have walked away from a meeting with Tony thinking a deal was on. Just ask Gordon Brown." Blair visited Libya in May 2007, during which UK energy giant BP signed a £450m exploration deal.'
An article in the same newspaper by Professor Hans Koechler, a UN-appointed observer at the Lockerbie trial, is also well worth reading. It contains the following sentence:
'What I do know is that the UK government was interested in having Megrahi returned to his homeland. There was this understanding between Libya and the UK, which was discussed in many confidential meetings. One of those recent meetings may have been the one between Lord Mandelson and the son of Colonel Gaddafi in Corfu.'