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Libya

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:48 pm on 16th April 1986.

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Photo of Mr Philip Goodhart Mr Philip Goodhart , Beckenham 7:48 pm, 16th April 1986

I hope that the speech of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown) will be widely studied and long remembered. I hope that it will also be remembered that the American action against Libya followed directly upon the failure, yet again, of the European Foreign Ministers to create a sensible, collective anti-terrorist policy.

In her admirable speech at the opening of this debate, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reminded us of the Achille Lauro incident when a cruise liner was hijacked in the eastern Mediterranean and an elderly American in a wheelchair was murdered. The American response to this outrage was precise and bloodless. The airliner carrying the murderers from Egypt to Tunisia was intercepted in the air by American aircraft and diverted to an airbase in Sicily where those responsible for the outrage were taken into custody by the Italian authorities.

The reaction of some Governments to this precise American response was significant. The Egyptian Government may not have lied to the Americans, but they gave inaccurate and misleading information to them. Meanwhile, the Italian authorities released a passenger on the aircraft who was widely believed to have been responsible for planning and carrying out the Achille Lauro hijack. He was allowed to escape. I do not recall that there were many Opposition plaudits for that very precise and bloodless operation.

Another maritime outrage had contributed to the general American belief that western Europe is unwilling to take effective action to defend its interests against international terrorism. In July 1984 a large number of mines were scattered in the Red sea. At that time it was believed that Colonel Gaddafi's forces were responsible. The mines were swept up by an international force, to which the Royal Navy made a signifiant contribution. After that minesweeping operation, it became abundantly plain—the proof was absolute—that Colonel Gaddafi was responsible for the mining of the Red sea. The ship that did it is known; the names of the crew of that ship are known. However, there was no protest by western Europe about Colonel Gaddafi's action.

It is difficult to co-ordinate effective international cooperation against terrorism. Until recent weeks the French have been opposed to formal international co-operation. The Italian and German authorities have been very effective in dealing with internal terrorism, but they have not been so effective in attempting to co-ordinate activities against international terrorism.

In a free society it is difficult to prevent individuals and individual companies from co-operating with countries of which we do not approve. Billy Carter, the brother of ex-President Jimmy Carter, is not the only American to cooperate with Colonel Gaddafi's henchmen. Our record is not particularly admirable. Some of our leading defence contractors—GEC, Marconi and Plessey—have recently carried out work in Libya, and it is believed that some English technicians have been assisting the Libyans in maintaining their radar network. Even since the murder of WPC Fletcher, hundreds of Libyans have been taught to fly in this country. They have also been taught in this country how to maintain aircraft and how to run a modern airport.

Of course one does not want to cut off all contact with a country whose present ruler is mad or hostile, but I wonder whether we are wise to continue with this policy. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary will tell us what is to happen to the Libyans who have been training in this country. It would not be sensible to continue those contracts. There needs to be a great deal more surveillance of those from the middle east who have come to this country for training.

During the debate a number of right hon. and hon. Members have harked back to the Suez incident. It has been said that the Americans are perhaps going down the same course. Too many right hon. and hon. Members have suggested that they want the Americans to fail, as we failed at Suez. I do not believe that it is an analogy. At the time of Suez we were financially vulnerable. The Americans are not financially vulnerable. We were vulnerable to pressure from the United Nations, but the Americans are not. At the time of Suez we were committed to seizing and holding certain precise pieces of territory, but the Americans are not so committed. At the time of Suez we were a divided nation. The Americans are not a divided nation.

Even the normally liberal and pacific New York Times has come out wholeheartedly in favour of this action. There is no possibility of President Reagan or his henchmen being replaced before the November 1988 presidential elections. If, therefore, we want a change in American policy, there is no point in making the sort of criticisms that we heard from Opposition Members, because the Americans are plainly set on their course.

If we wish to see a de-escalation of American policy, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary ought to be doing everything in his power yet again to persuade Europe to form an effective, common antiterrorist alliance and to show that this time we mean business and will do our best to stop international terrorism in its tracks. I wish the Foreign Secretary well in the task, but I do not think that he will succeed. Nevertheless, until he succeeds I am sure that the House is right to back the Prime Minister in the courageous course that she has taken.