Saturday, 27 August 2011
Fugitive 'justice' minister run to ground at last
With his enemies closing in, Kenny MacAskill had taken refuge in a school on the Craigmillar estate, and surrounded himself with a human shield of pasty-faced teenagers and their spritely teachers, all primed to express delight at the appearance in their midst of the justice secretary. But while some fed him biscuits and others posed for pictures, no-one seemed at ease.
These days the disquiet around Mr MacAskill is tangible. Fully two years ago, it was his decision to release Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, on compassionate grounds, that sparked worldwide protest. The Libyan had been found guilty by three Scottish judges of the worst terrorist atrocity in British history, killing 270 people when his bomb blew up Pan Am flight 103.
In August 2009, Al-Megrahi was said to have three months to live, before he succumbed to prostate cancer. Instead, until recently at least, he has been able to live out his life playing frisbee in a suburb of Tripoli, his sole duty in respect of his Scots law, the requirement to remain in telephone contact with East Renfrewshire Council, whose officials supervise his release.
No surprise then that in rare sightings, Mr MacAskill has cut an increasingly careworn figure. His recent remarks too to suggest a man who is losing control of events. It was no different at Castlebrae Community High. He was asked, had he been in contact with rebel leaders?
“Well obviously the UK government is speaking to them,” he said, embarking on the ramble of a man on the brink. “We are operating on a variety of fronts. From a media perspective, who goes where, who speaks to what, it’s difficult to fathom matters. That’s why we are waiting for the dust of battle to settle and in the interim to find out what is happening and to communicate through all appropriate routes.”
In a more lucid moment, Mr MacAskill did seek to deflect criticism, by turning the spotlight on those who had “glad-handed” the hated Libyan government of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, a reference to the infamous “deal in the desert” struck by Tony Blair, then Labour Prime Minister.
Unfortunately, Mr MacAskill’s charge of duplicity against his Labour enemies has begun to ring hollow in recent months.
In February, documents published in Westminster showed that senior government ministers and officials, including Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, were utterly convinced that they had been told in 2007 by the justice secretary himself, that the Scottish Government was ready to include Al-Megrahi in a prisoner transfer agreement, in return for concessions over firearms legislation and slopping out in prisons.
“There was then a conversation when he (MacAskill) asked for a deal,” Straw told The Times. “He obviously spoke to Salmond.”
Mr Salmond had gone on television himself to counter the claim of seeking a deal, but had found himself unable to call Mr Straw a liar. Would Mr MacAskill say that Mr Straw was a liar?
“I’m not bandying around matters here,” retorted Mr MacAskill, refusing to call Mr Straw a liar. “We stand on our record, north of the border, of having always been open, above board, the one authority that has acted with fairness and transparency throughout.”
In the fog of war, it all made as much sense as a placing a mass murderer, domiciled in Libya, in the care of a Renfrewshire parole officer.
* Pic James Glossop