Duncan Hamilton: Why the release of Megrahi remains the right decision

THE last few days of intense focus on the Lockerbie bombing demonstrate perfectly the difference between generating heat and light.

Sadly, the full truth about Lockerbie will never be known. The case will not now be satisfactorily concluded in the courts. Megrahi's appeal against conviction was the nearest I suspect we were going to get to the truth, not just because of the forensic focus of the Appeal Court but because of what new material would have entered the public domain.

Instead, we are suffering from a confusion created by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, all firing off in different directions. Some still want the truth about the bombing, others want to investigate Tony Blair's "Deal in the Desert" with Colonel Gaddafi, many want to give BP a public flogging and there remain calls to re-examine the controversial decision of the Scottish Government to send Megrahi home. There is no unity of purpose. The cross currents those lines of enquiry create do little more than create a media storm.

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Perhaps the greatest deception, however, is the idea that somehow the Scottish Government did something which the US and the UK opposed. That, in my view, is utter nonsense. There was no more than the necessary disapproving noises from Washington while the Labour Government offered tacit approval. In opposition, even David Cameron was critical, but careful. After all, wasn't it Gordon Brown who made it clear to Libya that he did not want Megrahi to die in Scotland? Wasn't it Tony Blair who assiduously worked on the deal to get a prisoner transfer agreement covering Megrahi in place from May 2007? Do you really think Blair acted alone and without US approval in seeking to "normalise" trade and oil relations with Libya? Do you really think he was freelancing?

The then UK Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, said the prisoner transfer agreement was partly because "we wanted to bring it (Libya] back into the fold. And yes, that included trade because trade is an essential part of it and subsequently there was the BP deal." That was a shared priority for the UK and US. Is that murky double dealing or just the reality of global politics? Both, probably, but let's nail the suggestion that the US and UK wanted anything other than Megrahi returned home. Those who had most to gain did most to make this happen.

The Scottish Government was never likely to touch the prisoner transfer agreement with a barge pole. It plainly recognised that to do so would raise precisely the allegations now flying around. The crucial point from a Scottish perspective is therefore that the wheeling and dealing of the UK and BP is an important and potentially scandalous back story to the separate decision to release Megrahi, but it is no more than that. That decision was made, therefore, solely on compassionate grounds. That doesn't mean the Scottish Government existed in a foreign policy bubble, entirely unaware of the external pressures and preferences of those around them. But no-one, on either side of the Atlantic, has produced anything, at any time, to suggest this was anything other than a very tough, divisive but objectively considered decision. That is precisely why the Scottish Government published all the evidence upon which the decision relied.

The consistent and considered stance of the Scottish Government stands in contrast to the behaviour of others. The four US Senators who stirred up the latest frenzy rushed to the press, claiming that "the doctor responsible for the key medical opinion" had claimed Megrahi could live for another 10 years. In fact, the opinion of Dr Sikora, the doctor to whom they referred, had no impact whatsoever. It was not considered or even received by the Scottish Government before the decision was made. That kind of half-cock, ill-informed dash for publicity does them no credit.

David Cameron also emerges damaged. Scots will not quickly forget the ease with which he decided to side with BP and blame the Scottish Government. Next time he tries to tell us we are strengthened abroad by being part of the Union, we might fairly ask why he was so eager to join the condemnation of the Scottish Government rather than explain to an American audience, on our behalf and as our Prime Minister, the complexities of the decision.

He could have emphasised three facts to protect our position. First, BP did not lobby the Scottish Government but did lobby the UK Government. All parties concerned have confirmed it. Secondly, the Scottish Government had no part whatsoever to play in the discussions and deals around the prisoner transfer agreement and any related oil deals. No-one has at any time suggested otherwise. Thirdly, the decision to release Megrahi - right or wrong -- was made on its own merits and without interference or lobbying. He didn't emphasise any of that, instead allowing misunderstanding and misinformation to fill the void.

I also resent the suggestion that compassion is time limited to three months. Just because Megrahi has not done the convenient thing and died within his allotted slot, are we to say that the decision was wrong? That position is absurd and cruel. Megrahi will die soon enough. We chose to let him do so at home and with dignity. That was, and is, the right decision.