Oliver Miles: An unholy alliance that we had to tackle

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The Independent Online

The first concrete proof of the Tripoli-IRA connection was established in 1973 when the Irish navy uncovered a Libyan arms shipment on board the Claudia, but we couldn't be sure what other direct help was being given. By the time I was involved in Libya in the early 1980s, it was not clear how much support Colonel Gaddafi was giving the IRA.

All we really knew was that the IRA were lobbying the Libyans for arms whenever the opportunity presented itself. I can't remember a deal to pay compensation to Libya to settle their claims or an offer of an inducement to stop them supporting the IRA.

What was clear at the time was that no military arms should be offered or sold to the Libyans. This was not just because of the IRA link but also the threat Gaddafi posed to the international community. This arms embargo was a strict policy and imposed to the letter of the law. I remember advising Lord Carrington (the then foreign secretary) that having sold Libya some naval patrol boats earlier we [the British] should not agree to their request for ceremonial "saluting guns".

We didn't even sell them transporters for their tanks. I remember that diplomatically it was a tricky situation because every time the Libyans wanted to know why we wouldn't sell them arms I had to say, in effect, that it was because we didn't like them – and there was no other way of putting it.

I also remember the Libyans were making claims for injuries and damages over the legacy of unexploded munitions from the Second World War, but this was a smouldering issue, not a burning one. I don't think that we should be obliged to pay Libya compensation, after all we were fighting to liberate their country from the Italians. What we should have done was give them as many Second World War maps as we could, so they could clear the mines themselves. We may have let them down on this by not being as organised as we should have been in handing over every scrap of information.

We have also been guilty of ignoring the contribution the Libyan people made during the war, especially those who fought for the British. If they have any claims, then they should be specific and supported by evidence – not general demands for war damage.

Oliver Miles is a former British ambassador to Libya