Alex Massie

Lockerbie Letters: No Smoking Gun

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I know this won't satisfy anyone who desperately wants there to have been a shady, grubby conspiracy but a quick perusal of the correspondence on the Lockerbie Affair published by the Justice Department, the Scottish Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office today gives no support to the notion that there was any such deal*. 

The pattern is quite clear: the Scottish authorities weren't happy with a PTA being signed at all but if there was one they wanted the PTA to contain a provision specifically excluding Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi from its terms. London agreed and tried to make a deal with Libya excluding Megrahi. Libya demurred and London relented, permitting Tripoli a "victory" for its own domestic audience. But this was a "victory" with no practical consequences since, as London repeatedly makes clear the final decision on Megrahi's fate is a matter for the Scottish authorities. Megrahi might be eligible for transfer to Libya but that does not mean any such request must be granted. That remains, quite properly, a matter for the Scottish government. Meanwhile, the Scottish authorities were keen to know if a binding agreement had been made with the US that Megrahi would serve his entire sentence in Scotland. The UK authorities insist that though this had been the understanding, it was not a commitment since no government wanted to "tie the hands" of its successors.

A letter from Jack Straw to Alex Salmond, dated February 11th 2008, makes much of this clear:

You ask what I meant by 'national interest'. Developing a strong relationship with Libya, and helping it to reintegrate into the international community, is good for the UK. From your statements in the Scottish Parliament and in the public domain, I understand that you share the desire of the UK government to develop better relations with Libya. Libya is one of only two countries to have ever voluntarily and transparently dismantled its weapons of mass destruction programme. Having sponsored terrorist attacks in the past, it is now an important partner in the fight against terrorism. Libya is in a key position to help stem the flow of illegal migrants to the the EU and to the UK.

Libya is keen to co-operate with the UK on judicial matters. Developing this co-operation is an important part of the bilateral relationship. We currently have standard prisoner transfer arrangements with 98 countries and, understandably, Libya does not want to be treated differently.

No prisoner can be transferred under the PTA without the consent of both countries, and any decision concerning the transfer of a prisoner from Scottish jail would be a matter for the Scottish Ministers. Given these safeguards I do not believe that it is necessary, or sensible, to risk damaging our wide ranging and beneficial relationship with Libya by inserting a specific exclusion into the PTA.

Now of course there may have been other understandings. Perhaps Megrahi did abandon his appeal to increase his prospects of being released on compassionate grounds. Perhaps he also resigned himself to dying a guilty man. Who knows? It would be useful if other documents were published too. But there's no smoking gun, as far as I can see anyway, in those that have been released.

The closest we come to one is Ivan Lewis's letter to Kenny MacAskill, dated August 3rd 2009 in which the FCO minister writes:

I hope...that you will now feel able to consider the Libyan application [for Megrahi's transfer] in accordance with the provisions of the Prisoner Transfer Agreement.

So: not much here. But, yes, perhaps there's more elsewhere.

The London government may well have wanted Megrahi to be transferred to Libya but it didn't have the power to do so. Nor, as best I can see, are there grounds for supposing it pressed MacAskill to release Megrahi. Though perhaps there are other documents that would prove this. Even if they had, the decision remained MacAskill's. Scottish minister may have lacked confidence in their ability to reject Megrahi's PTA application - which is one reason why they wanted him excluded from its terms - but it's still the case that MacAskill did in fact reject the Libyan application for his transfer home.

Granted, the Libyans may have been under the impression that London also wanted to avoid the prospect of Megrahi dying in Greennock jail, but that doesn't mean that London was necessarily able to bully or bluff Edinburgh into releasing him.

In the end, it still seems probable, to me anyway, that a pretty unlikely combination of circumstances permitted everyone - excpet the families of the victims and anyone who'd like to know more - to retire from the fray reasonably satisfied with the eventual outcome. But that doesn't mean there was a conspiracy to engineer those circumstances or that outcome.

*Of course it doesn't! They wouldn't publish the damning correspondence would they? Where, in the name of the wee man, is Blair in all this? Where? Where, I ask you!

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.