Libya-IRA arms report author ‘surprised and disappointed’ by Government response

David Young, PA
·5-min read

The author of a confidential Foreign Office report on Libyan-sponsored IRA bombings has expressed surprise and disappointment at the Government’s response to his work.

William Shawcross also told a Westminster committee that Foreign Secretary Dominic Rabb has not spoken to him about his findings since he submitted them a year ago.

The Government has ruled out using £12 billion of frozen Libyan assets held in the UK, specifically the tax take generated by them, to compensate victims of explosives supplied by former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

It has also refused to fund a scheme using other public finances while it continues to press the authorities in the north African country to pay out.

Blair visit to Africa
Former prime minister Tony Blair meets Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi at his desert base outside Sirte south of Tripoli (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The Foreign Office has insisted the responsibility for paying victims of Libyan arms rests with the Libyan state.

Colonel Gaddafi armed the IRA with the powerful Semtex plastic explosive used in atrocities such as the bombing of Harrods in 1983, the Remembrance Day ceremony in Enniskillen in 1987, Warrington in 1993, and London’s Docklands in 1996.

Those bereaved and injured by the attacks have long been pressing the Government the use the billions of pounds of assets linked to the toppled Gaddafi regime which were frozen in the UK in 2011 under UN sanction.

Mr Shawcross, former chairman of the Charity Commission, was appointed by then foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt in 2019 to examine all the issues related to victims’ long-running campaign for compensation.

Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly set out the Government response to his report on Tuesday, less than 24 hours before Mr Shawcross was due to appear before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to face questions from MPs.

Asked by committee chairman Simon Hoare to give his response to Mr Cleverly’s statement, Mr Shawcross said: “I was surprised and disappointed.”

Charity Commission Annual Public Meeting
Libya-IRA arms report author William Shawcross (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Mr Shawcross apologised to committee members that his contract with the Foreign Office prevented him discussing the contents of his report.

He did confirm that he had made a series of recommendations to the Government on the compensation issue.

The Government has faced intense criticism from victims for refusing to publish Mr Shawcross’s findings.

However, in evidence to the committee, Mr Shawcross insisted there had never been an intention to publish the report.

“It was never intended to be published, as far as I understood,” he said.

Mr Shawcross said he was able to assure people they could speak freely to him during his investigations because the report was confidential.

“That confidentiality that I promised people was, I think, very important,” he said.

British Crime – Terrorism – The IRA – Harrods Car Bomb – London – 1983
The aftermath of the IRA bomb at Harrods (PA)

Confirming that current Foreign Secretary Mr Rabb has not sought to speak to him about his findings, Mr Shawcross also told the committee that no other minister or senior official has approached him to discuss the contents of his report since he submitted it in March 2020.

He said the only conversation he has had was with Mr Cleverly earlier this month – an engagement he said he instigated with the minister to discuss his scheduled appearance before the committee.

Mr Shawcross told the committee that ongoing conflict in Libya had prevented him from speaking to anyone from the country during his six months of work.

He expressed scepticism about the prospect of the current Libyan authorities paying out compensation in the short to medium term.

On Tuesday, the Government said it would continue to press the Libyan authorities on the issue and highlighted that wider compensation schemes for those injured in criminal acts are available in the UK, including a new payment scheme for Troubles victims.

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William Shawcross said he has not spoken to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab about his report (Victoria Jones/PA)

Mr Cleverly said that, under international law, the Government is unable to access the frozen assets.

Around £5 million of tax is derived from the frozen assets every year.

That money is diverted into the Consolidated Fund with all other tax income and used to fund public services across the UK.

Victims have insisted it should be ring-fenced and used for compensation.

Mr Shawcross told the committee there is a “strong argument” for using the tax take to help victims.

However, he added: “It’s not a huge amount of money in the scheme of things.”

Mr Hoare suggested that the UK could use its veto in the UN Security Council to prevent any move to unfreeze the Libyan assets.

Mr Shawcross replied: “I’m sure that any responsible British government would want to look at the legality and the possibility of raising such an issue.”

Victims have accused the Government of failing to represent their interests and have highlighted that the US, France and Germany had secured millions of pounds of compensation for Libyan terror victims from Gaddafi’s regime as it emerged from years of international isolation in the 2000s.

They have been particularly critical of the last Labour government for failing to secure a similar agreement in the years prior to Gaddafi being ousted.

Mr Shawcross expressed frustration that the money was not secured then.

“It is a tragedy it wasn’t settled many decades ago when we first resumed relations with Libya,” he told MPs.

After the public session of Wednesday morning’s committee session concluded, MPs went into private sessions with Mr Shawcross to discuss his report in more detail.