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Pressure and policy

Brian Taylor | 14:17 UK time, Monday, 7 February 2011

And so we know now that the previous Labour UK government set out to "do all it could" from the latter portion of 2008 onwards to secure the release of Abdelbaset ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber.

On 20 August 2009, Megrahi was released from Greenock Prison on compassionate grounds, returning to Libya. QED? Well, no.

We already knew or had grounds to believe that it was thought to be in UK interests for the issue of Megrahi to be addressed and resolved.

We know this not least from the letters sent by Jack Straw to Scottish ministers in late 2007 and early 2008 with regard to the insistence by the Scottish government that Megrahi should be explicitly excluded from a Prisoner Transfer Agreement between the UK and Libya.

Mr Straw notes he had previously sought to exclude Megrahi but that this was not now possible in the light of the pursuit of UK interests and attempts to integrate Libya into the international community.

Release 'preferred'

Today's disclosures in a review of documents by the UK's most senior civil servant, Sir Gus O'Donnell, go further than that by indicating a more active pursuit of Megrahi's release.

But the direction of UK policy travel was already clear. They saw Megrahi's continuing imprisonment in Scotland as a barrier to UK diplomatic and commercial links with Libya, given Tripoli's expressed view.

So Libya wanted Megrahi out. The UK wanted Megrahi out - and sought to facilitate that, according to Sir Gus, via the options of the PTA or compassionate release.

That still does not prove that the decision by Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, was made in order to comply with the UK government's wishes or those of commercial interests such as BP.

Indeed, Sir Gus repeatedly stresses that it was well understood that the decision was one for the Scottish government alone.

Further, he notes that the former UK government took pains to avoid pressing the Scottish government to acquiesce in the new UK policy (Megrahi liberation) on the basis that such a move could be "counter-productive".

Beams and motes

The Scottish government has stressed once again that the Megrahi decision stood alone on compassionate grounds - and was not linked to any pressure from the UK government or any deal with Whitehall over other issues.

It stresses further that the published evidence provides absolutely nothing to counter either of these assertions.

Rather, Scottish ministers seek to accuse their former Labour Westminster counterparts of duplicity and hypocrisy in pursuing one policy (Megrahi free) while declining to state such a policy to Scottish ministers (counter-productive).

I understand entirely why that accusation is being made, particularly in the light of the condemnation previously heaped upon Scottish ministers. Think beams and motes.

Not sure that will run, though, at least in terms of real politik. For one thing, Scottish ministers and officials were perfectly well aware of the emerging views in Whitehall.

For another, continuing public interest is still likely to focus upon the Scottish government decision itself, not the concomitant Westminster view at the time, however malleable.
Still and all, Megrahi was released. And he is still alive in Tripoli many months after that release.

Evidence questions

Observers have suggested a range of potential motivations for that release, other than the stated reason of compassion.

For example, that there was continuing doubt over Megrahi's conviction and that it was thought sensible to bring the appeal process to a conclusion by granting compassionate release.

Or, two, that this was a commercial deal to advance UK oil interests. That the Scottish government opted to acquiesce in the pursuit of such interests.

Neither of those options is given any empirical basis from today's publication.

Evidence there is that certain interests, political and commercial, sought Megrahi's release. Evidence there is not that the Scottish government bowed to such interests. To the contrary.

Aberdeen is hosting Brian Taylor's Big Debate this Friday on BBC Radio Scotland, from 1215 to 1300. You can email to book your place in the audience at Queen's Cross Church.


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