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Matthew Parris

Should I have urged my rich friend to try to pay a ransom for poor Margaret Hassan?

Should I have urged my rich friend to try to pay a ransom for poor Margaret Hassan?

31 December 2005

12:00 AM

31 December 2005

12:00 AM

Do you not find that when a wrong has been done, time may elapse before the wrongfulness pricks through into our consciences? I mean not only wrongs we do ourselves, or which are done to us, but also the sense we may have that a small or large injustice has been done in the world, and nobody has acknowledged this or tried to put it right. In the dead of night, goaded into wakefulness by something sharp the unconscious mind has sifted from the rubble and will not let drop, we run again through events under which we, or those we know, or our politicians, have supposedly ‘drawn a line’ — and conclude that we do not want to draw a line; we do not want to ‘move on’. We run again through the excuses and find that they will not do, that ‘time’ will not heal this, and that as individuals or as a nation we are rebuked by our indifference.

Looking back from the turn of the year, I feel the rebuke in three files I cannot close. They are unrelated, and the first is a story infinitely more awful than the others. Could these wrongs be righted or at least acknowledged in the year ahead? Perhaps this column is part of the acknowledgment.

Around the beginning of last year we were still not absolutely certain Margaret Hassan was dead. Maybe you remember reading about her kidnapping, in October 2004, in Baghdad. Mrs Hassan was British, married to an Iraqi. She was a charity worker in Baghdad. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Washington Post’s correspondent, said of her: ‘Margaret Hassan is just an incredible woman who literally had devoted her life to helping the Iraqi people. I first met her almost two years ago. One of a very few international aid workers operating in there, she had been heading the Care International office in Iraq for more than a decade. She had been teaching English for the British Council in Iraq, and had a brief career reading the English news on Iraqi TV: a woman who really had devoted her life to helping, directing projects for water, sanitation and health care. She remained in Baghdad when the invasion was under way. She even travelled to Britain to speak to the members of the British parliament to advise them against joining the invasion.’

God knows which particular clutch of ignorant ghouls kidnapped her. She was never released. She must be dead. It all happened a few weeks after the beheading of Ken Bigley.

I think no ill of the late Mr Bigley. I met many like him when I went to Iraq. There is a living to be made working as a foreign contractor in that awful place, and I admire the plucky souls with the guts and spirit to risk it. These British adventurers are a splendid strand in our national character. What happened to Ken Bigley was awful.

But poor Margaret Hassan was not there for the money. She loved Iraq, she had nothing to do with the occupation, she was earning nothing, she just wanted to help people, and it was so brave to stay and do so. I don’t begrudge Mr Bigley’s memory a second of the outpouring of grief for him in Liverpool and nationally, on the radio and television and in all the newspapers, nor Tony Blair’s publicly expressed sorrow. But as the months of 2005 have passed, I have not found myself thinking less often of Margaret Hassan, or less sadly of the limited interest that was shown in Britain for her fate.

I have a personal reason for distress and have waited a year before writing about this, until it was well out of the news and just a matter of record. After the kidnapping a very rich friend who knew Mrs Hassan and had supported her work for Care International contacted me, and told me that if a ransom was demanded, it could perhaps be raised. Could I find an intermediary? I share any thinking person’s hesitation about ‘giving in’ to ransom demands, but my job here was to set out the possibilities. I am satisfied I did. Whereupon — and before my friend could act — a scarily effective and totally behind-the-scenes operation was mounted to stop the plan. Tons of bricks came down privately on my generous friend’s head, and from many directions, and from on high — very high. Frighteners were applied in a pretty unscrupulous way. Terrified, my friend backed out. So might you if you were told that your own family might be targeted next. But no individual who has paid a ransom in Iraq has found their children threatened with kidnap in Europe. The threat was hollow.

It was not my place to argue. We had got some way towards finding routes for communication but now had to abort. And that was the end of it. Later (one assumes) Mrs Hassan was killed. Italian aid workers were (in separate kidnappings) released; there were unconfirmed reports that the Italian government paid about a million euros to secure their release. We could have raised that for Mrs Hassan. But the governments involved in her case abhorred that approach.

I do understand why. But soon we shall have to leave Iraq. None of the principles to which we have adhered will have made any difference. I admire principle but I wish Margaret Hassan were still alive and am troubled as the year ends by the worry that I should have urged my friend to hang principle, ignore advice, and try to buy her release.

If Howard Flight reads the foregoing, he may reflect that whatever injustice he suffered during the 2005 general election campaign is trivial by comparison. His post as a Tory economic spokesman was Michael Howard’s to award and to withdraw. Although (on examination of the full record of an unguarded remark about Tory spending plans) Flight was not as offside as reports suggested, the sensation embarrassed the Conservative leader. Sacking Flight was understandable.

But unseating this transparently honestly intentioned man from his constituency — and thus from the Commons — was a wrong: to him and to the Arundel & South Downs Conservative Association. From the record of an eminently decent period of leadership by Michael Howard, it stands out as an aberrant injustice. Mr Flight is taking legal action. I think Tory Central Office will be in legal difficulty about this, but our party surely knows that such things should never reach court. A moment of understandable panic stripped Mr Flight of his career and his whole political life. Panic over, he should be offered a place in the Lords. It would be an act of signal generosity from the Conservatives’ new leader.

And I want to see Lord Flight joined by someone who might horrify him. Angela Mason led the Stonewall Group, campaigning for homosexual equality through a critical decade, towards total success. Last week the civil partnerships she worked for became real. Angela had started adult life as an angry firebrand. Her youthful record was embarrassing — I accept that. But I was the Conservative on Stonewall’s board who did not resign when she was named chief executive. We all make mistakes when young, and there are Cabinet ministers who were once communists. Angela became a rock of good sense and deft judgment, and for Stonewall a moderate face and careful voice. She’s no Tory, but why has Tony Blair, who can be proud of his government’s contribution to homosexual equality, not put her in the Upper House? He still has time.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.

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