By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)
Well-informed sources in the North were suggesting last week that a large compensation package from Libya for the victims of the troubles may soon become available.
While the exact nature of the package and who precisely its recipients will be remain to be agreed (presumably, in the first place with the Libyans themselves), the size of the award could well be in the region of half a billion sterling.
The Libyan government has long admitted that it supplied the Provisional IRA with large numbers of small arms and some heavy munitions at various times during the Troubles - particularly the material that utterly revolutionised the IRA’s bombing capacity, the Czech explosive Semtex.
This Libyan decision is in keeping with Colonel Gaddafi’s new policy of detente with the west, following his long years of political and economic isolation.
The story has complex roots. The 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco, which resulted in the deaths of American servicemen, was seen by the Reagan administration as a Libyan act, and American aircraft based in Britain subsequently bombed Tripoli in revenge.
Among the many civilian victims was one of Gaddafi’s own adopted children.
The colonel’s revenge was to increase his military support for the IRA - he had assisted them on previous occasions - and hundreds of tons of hardware were smuggled into Ireland.
However, since 1999, Libya has made dramatic changes to its foreign policy, beginning with handing over the suspect for the Lockerbie bombing. Within a short time, it discontinued its nuclear programme. It paid three billion dollars in compensation to the Lockerbie victims and last year saw the reopening of full diplomatic relations with the US.
It is in this context that the Libyan compensation package for the victims of the Troubles will come but, as with everything else in the North, it may not be as simple as that. Already the arguments have broken out as to what constitutes a victim, and there have even been attempts to establish a hierarchy of victims.
The DUP and, in particular, a Protestant-only victims group led by Willie Frazer, have insisted that only those killed by republican paramilitary activities can be classed as victims. This is a concept the Libyans themselves are already believed to have rejected.
The problem with the definition of victims is that the war in the North was multi-faceted. There were not only victims of the republicans, the loyalists and the British crown forces (army and police), but there is also the complicated area of state involvement in collusion and the whole area of the secret war.
For example, were republicans, killed as a result of IRA punishment squads being infiltrated by British Intelligence, victims of the IRA or victims of the state? And what about the many victims of loyalist killers, given the allegation that the loyalist death squads were infiltrated and run by British Intelligence operatives? So who was ultimately responsible for these deaths?
In the years since the Troubles ended, various victims’ pressure groups have been seeking to establish how their loved ones were killed and, in some cases, to seek compensation.
Although it may not have been recognised at the time, the legal action taken by the relatives of the Omagh bombings against those they believed guilty may yet be responsible for opening up a whole new legal if not diplomatic avenue. It was the first class action of its kind upheld by the courts, it took evidence north and south of the border, and in the end it proved successful.
As a legal precedent, it is now being considered by lawyers for some of the victims’ groups. Interestingly, relatives of the victims of those killed by UDA operative and informer Brian Nelson believe they may be in a position to launch a significant legal claim against the British government.
As was subsequently accepted at his trial, Nelson was run by British intelligence within the UDA. On their behalf, he imported a large consignment of weapons from South Africa which were eventually involved in the killing of large numbers of people, particularly in a bloody series of sectarian killings in north Belfast. Nelson’s controller gave evidence at the trial.
The many relatives of Nelson’s victims are now inquiring if they too can take a class action against the British government. Some are also asking why, if the Libyan government is now prepared to pay a huge sum in compensation (given that it was the military architect of illegal action), why should the British government not also pay compensation for its part in the killing of their relatives?
Perhaps the most significant move of all remains to be initiated, and that is the question of the victims - and relatives of the victims - of the troubles in this state. While there has yet been no talk about the Libyan discussion of any victims outside Britain and the North, the case of the Monaghan and Dublin bombings must come to mind.
Already, extensive legal investigation has been undertaken by the Barron report and the McEntee inquiry, and there are few today who do not accept that these acts were sanctioned by British Intelligence. If this is the case, have not the victims the same moral claim for compensation as those now looking towards Tripoli?
So is there not a basis for initiating a class action in the Republic’s courts along the lines of that undertaken by the Omagh victims?
The Dublin/Monaghan bombings devastated families who were subsequently - and shamefully - abandoned by their own government.
In particular, the inaction of the authorities under the 1974 coalition government was appalling; even a cursory examination of the files of that time reveals as disgraceful a security and political performance as one could imagine. Abandoned by their own, and all but forgotten in the tide of victims from the North, they now deserve the most determined action by the government.
It’s quite simple. If Libya is facing up internationally to its responsibilities, is it not also time that Britain does as well?
If the Libyan money were to be paid out without any significant recognition or change in the status of the victims of the Northern troubles in the Republic, it would be yet another act of betrayal by an Irish government.