MacAskill to survive as MSPs back off key vote

Share this article

JUSTICE secretary Kenny MacAskill is set to survive the storm of controversy over the release of the Lockerbie bomber after it emerged that opposition parties had backed off from a vote of no confidence.

MSPs have privately admitted they cannot agree on a such a move, The Scotsman has learned, despite indications over the weekend that they might be willing to see the Scottish Government fall over the issue.

The retreat came on a day that Mr MacAskill faced a gruelling session in Holyrood over his decision to release Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, telling MSPs he would "live with the consequences".

A debate has now been scheduled for next week, when it is likely that Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will join together to show that Mr MacAskill's decision was not supported by the majority of the parliament.

Read Stephen McGinty's analysis of this story here

They believe this may go some way to repair the international damage done to Scotland's image. However, they will not force a no-confidence vote.

Mr MacAskill spoke yesterday at an emergency session in the Scottish Parliament, after it was recalled early from its summer break.

Members of the public queued outside for a seat and the public benches were full by the time the minister rose to address MSPs.

After a near-identical statement to the one he gave last Thursday, rival parties insisted that he had not been speaking for Scotland in making the decision to release the one man convicted of blowing up Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, killing 270 people.

• Was the Scottish Government right to release the Lockerbie bomber? Click here to vote in our poll

MSPs spoke of their fury over the sight of saltires waving in Tripoli as part of a hero's welcome for Megrahi, amid claims that the justice secretary had brought shame to Scotland.

Mr MacAskill condemned the scenes in Tripoli and told MSPs he had received assurances from the Libyans that the return would be low key. He described the scenes as "a matter of great regret" and accused both the Libyan authorities and Megrahi of being "insensitive" and showing "no compassion".

While there was no sign of American fury over the decision to free Megrahi dissipating, leading figures in civic Scotland rallied to the beleaguered Mr MacAskill's defence.

Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland issued statements to say he had done the right thing.

Read David Maddox's extra analysis of this story here

Archbishop of Glasgow Mario Conti said: "I personally, and many others in the Catholic community, admired the decision to release al-Megrahi on grounds of compassion.

"The showing of mercy in any situation is not a sign of weakness. Indeed, in this situation, with the pressures and circumstances of the case, it seemed to me a sign of manifest strength."

The Rev Ian Galloway, convener of the Kirk's church and society council, said: "This decision speaks to the world about what it is to be Scottish. One of the key defining marks of a nation is how it treats those who have chosen to hurt it."

There was political support for the justice secretary from outwith his own party. Former Labour first minister Henry McLeish, who is a friend of Mr MacAskill, gave his backing to the decision.

And former presiding officer and Liberal leader Lord David Steel said: "I think most opinion in Scotland is in favour of the decision to release him on compassionate grounds."

In the Holyrood chamber, Labour MSP and former minister Malcolm Chisholm broke ranks with his colleagues and attacked his own leadership over the "politicisation" of the decision. There was also support from the Greens.

But the leaders of the main opposition parties made their displeasure clear.

Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray asked about the American families.

"How does he (Mr MacAskill] think those families felt when he acknowledged with one breath that their views meant al-Megrahi could not be released to a Libyan prison, and yet in the next breath he released him to freedom in Tripoli?" he said.

He later accused Mr MacAskill of misleading parliament over claims that it had been on the basis of evidence from UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw that he had controversially visited Megrahi in jail. The evidence from Mr Straw states that only "written representations" need to be received.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott said: "In the eight years since al-Megrahi was found guilty and imprisoned, the world has changed. But now, because of the handling of this decision, Scotland finds itself on the wrong side of change, with an international reputation failing, not growing."

Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie wanted to know why Megrahi had not been put in a hospice or home in Scotland.

But Mr MacAskill said he had been advised by the deputy chief constable of Strathclyde that it would take 48 officers to guard Megrahi.

He added that he did not want to disturb the "calm and dignity" of a hospice with the "inevitable circus" that would follow the convicted bomber.

Hitting back at the Lib Dems, Mr MacAskill also pointed out that their former Scottish leader, Lord Wallace, had released a child murderer on compassionate grounds.

And he said that no justice minister had ever turned down a request for compassionate release when a prisoner met the criteria of not having more than three months to live.

However, Mr MacAskill did admit the decision was his and that he could have refused Megrahi's request.

One Labour MSP raised doubts about Megrahi's medical condition. Former minister Dr Richard Simpson, a Labour MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, asked about Megrahi's remaining life expectancy. He claimed his reading of the medical documents published by the minister suggested Megrahi had at least eight months to live.

"If Mr Megrahi lives for much longer than the three months, this will add to the insult for American families," he said.

Mr MacAskill restated his willingness to co-operate with any public inquiry into Lockerbie but insisted he stood by Megrahi's conviction and that any inquiry would have to be called by a government or organisation with the necessary powers.

He said the devolved Scottish Government did not have the powers to hold its own inquiry.

Spot the (very few) differences in speech

ANYONE listening to Kenny MacAskill's address to the reconvened Scottish Parliament would have found it strangely familiar.

The justice secretary repeated whole passages of the speech he made last Thursday when he announced the decision to release the bomber. Sections about Scottish justice, humanity and mercy were reproduced word for word – as was the avowal that Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion.

Yesterday, as on Thursday, Mr MacAskill concluded with the words: "That alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days."

There was some new information yesterday, when he said that the Libyan government had gone back on its promise not to give Megrahi a hero's welcome. But those seeking further clarification were destined to be disappointed.