Civil war in Libya means chance of compensation for Gaddafi/IRA victims is slim
For years, victims of IRA attacks made possible by explosives and other weapons provided by Muammar Gaddafi's regime have sought compensation from Libya.
Gaddafi (inset below) openly sympathised with the IRA and his now deposed regime supplied it with the plastic explosive Semtex and other armaments during the 1980s.
Attacks carried out with Libyan Semtex included the Enniskillen bombing in 1987, the Ballygawley bus bombing in 1988 and over 200 other booby-trap explosions.
Inspired by the campaigns of victims of the 1998 Lockerbie bombing, which resulted in more than €1bn being paid out by Gaddafi, and the compensation given to the family of British police constable Yvonne Fletcher, who was shot dead outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984, many of those bereaved or injured in IRA attacks enabled by Gaddafi's patronage have believed they have a good case. But Libya now is a very different place than it was under Gaddafi. Speaking at a recent hearing before the Northern Ireland Select Committee at Westminster, British Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood spoke of how the political instability that has followed the ousting of Gaddafi in 2011 has made dealing with the issue of compensation much more difficult.
For the last year Libya has been wracked by civil war, with two governments, two parliaments and two army chiefs competing for power while backed by various armed factions. The government recognised by Britain and the international community is essentially toothless, driven out of the capital, Tripoli, during a militia battle last summer and now based in a small town in eastern Libya.
"We have no government as such, in order to put these questions to," Mr Ellwood told the committee. "We hope that will be resolved in the very near future but it has compounded us in trying to get answers to the very delicate questions which we would work towards."
The question of monetary compensation is delicate indeed. During my four years of reporting on Libya, it has been clear there is little appetite there for compensating for Gaddafi's misadventures overseas, which were not limited to his support for the IRA.
"We suffered under Gaddafi for 42 years, that's what sparked our revolution to get rid of him. Why should we the Libyan people pay for the sins elsewhere of the man who also terrorised us?," one government official told me in Tripoli in 2012.
This has been echoed in scores of conversations I have had with other officials and ordinary Libyans. Even if there was a stable government and political will to address the issue, paying out for Gaddafi's wrongdoings abroad would risk a public backlash at home. Libya has faced its own domestic compensation controversies during the turbulent transition that followed Gaddafi's fall. Plans by the transitional authorities to compensate political dissidents jailed and tortured under Gaddafi triggered much criticism. Libyans whose properties and land were confiscated and redistributed under Gaddafi are also campaigning for a blanket compensation scheme to make up for their losses, which run to billions.
Furthermore, oil-rich Libya is experiencing an economic crisis that has led some to predict the country could go broke before it is at peace. Ongoing conflict has slashed crude output to less than 400,000 barrels per day, a fraction of what was being produced before 2011. Plummeting global oil prices have hit Libya's coffers hard, given the lopsided nature of the economy Gaddafi devised. Its central bank has been forced to eat into its foreign reserves. Some predict the reserves could run out within a couple of years.
The IRA victims have made much of claims made by Jason McCue, a lawyer acting for some of the victims. Mr McCue travelled to Benghazi, the city that birthed the 2011 uprising, just weeks after it began, where he met with the fledgling council set up by the revolutionaries. He says he got agreement from the council at that early stage to compensate IRA victims. I was in Benghazi at the time and remember how news of this prompted a negative response from several Libyans, who felt their demands at the time for foreign intervention were being exploited in order to secure such promises.
Since then many have argued that the council - which no longer exists - had no authority to make such a pledge.
Mr McCue claims his Libyan interlocutors say the agreement is "still live" but this is questionable given the current political crisis and the diffuse nature of power in post-Gaddafi Libya.
As Mr Ellwood put it at the Westminster hearing: "They have no obligation, after a revolution, to honour what a previous administration has committed itself to. That's the reality check that we face in this situation."
The IRA victims argue that the British government could do much more for their cause but in the end the decision will be up to the Libyans. At this juncture, the prospects of monetary compensation look very slim indeed.