Page last updated at 21:56 GMT, Sunday, 6 September 2009 22:56 UK

'U-turn' for PM on Libyan pay-out

Gordon Brown and Muammar Gaddafi
Gordon Brown said the Foreign Office would campaign for compensation

Gordon Brown has confirmed the UK will support compensation claims being made against Libya by IRA victims' families.

The government has been criticised for its closer ties with Libya by victims of the IRA, which was supplied with explosives by Tripoli.

Mr Brown insisted his government's priority had been to ensure Libya renounced terror and nuclear weapons.

Opposition MPs said the prime minister's "U-turn" undermined his authority and made Britain look weak.

Speaking in Berlin, where he was meeting the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, Mr Brown said a "dedicated" team of officials would now help seek compensation for the families.

Shadow foreign secretary William Hague and DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson both described the move as a U-turn.

We have forced a U-turn, it's not every day you can say that.
Jeffrey Donaldson, DUP MP

BBC political correspondent Iain Watson said the government had made the move after Mr Brown said it would "not be appropriate" to have "bilateral discussions with Libya on this matter" last year.

A lawyer for the victims, Jason McCue, said he was "overjoyed" by Mr Brown's support, which he suggested could enable a compensation claim "to be cleared up within a matter of weeks".

'Desperately care'

Mr Brown said he thought the IRA victims themselves, not the government, stood the best chance of persuading Libya to compensate them.

He said: "I desperately care about the impact of all IRA atrocities on the victims, their families and communities.

"The Libyans have refused to accept a treaty or normal intergovernmental agreement on this issue.

American citizens are more equal than British citizens it seems
John Ley, High Wycombe

"As a result, our judgement has been that the course more likely to bring results is to support the families and their lawyers in their legal representations to the Libyan authorities.

"We will appoint dedicated officers in the Foreign Office and our Embassy in Tripoli who will accompany the campaign group to meetings with the Libyan government to negotiate compensation, the first of which will be in the next few weeks."

Critics say the government has shied away from confronting the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, because of deals struck with Tripoli by British oil companies.

'Changed' relationship

But the prime minister insisted "successive governments" had sought compensation for IRA victims over last two decades.

He said: "Our priority has been to ensure that Libya supports the fight against terrorism and gives up its nuclear weapons.

"As Libya has renounced nuclear weapons and terrorism, our relationship has changed.

"It is these concerns - not oil or commercial interests - that have long been the dominant feature of our relationship."

Mr Parry said the government's main consideration should be the safety of its citizens

Mr McCue said it was "a great day for victims" because Gordon Brown had made a "principled decision" that "listened to ordinary folk rather than bureaucrats".

"I am confident that his moral and logistical backing for the British victims of Libyan Semtex will ensure that they now receive justice and compensation, as did the US victims when they received the support of their president," he said.

Mr McCue added that "with our PM's full support, I cannot see why this matter cannot be concluded swiftly in a matter of weeks and before parliament reconvenes."

Northern Ireland MP Jeffrey Donaldson, who has been working with the victims' families and is due to visit Tripoli on their behalf, said: "We have forced a U-turn, it's not every day you can say that.

"We will work with his government to put the case to the Libyans.

"It is essential now that the government delivers what the Prime Minister has promised."

The government denied claims it refused to press for compensation because of fears of jeopardising oil deals with Libya.

On Sunday Downing Street released a letter written by the prime minister to IRA victims' lawyer Jason McCue last October in which Mr Brown wrote that the government did not "consider it appropriate to enter into a bilateral discussion with Libya on this matter".

Libya are an essential partner in the fight against terrorism and it is in the UK's interests for this co-operation to continue
Gordon Brown's letter to victims' lawyer

He added that Libya would be "strongly opposed to reopening the issue".

Out-of-court deals have been agreed by Libya with three American victims of IRA atrocities.

But more than 100 UK IRA victims, who had been pursuing similar claims through the US courts, had been excluded from those deals.

Their campaign was boosted by the Scottish government's decision to free Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds.

Conservative foreign affairs spokesman William Hague said Mr Brown's change of mind was a "stunning admission" that the government had failed to support the families of the victims of IRA terrorism.

He said: "The British government should have provided active support as a matter of course, not as a result of public pressure.

"But Gordon Brown and the government he leads have long lost their moral compass."

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey told the BBC: "We have got a prime minister who no longer appears to be in control. The government looks pretty weak."

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