Ballymena man tells Commons Committee how Gadafi's legacy of terror has impacted on so many lives

Dessie Blackadder

Reporter:

Dessie Blackadder

THE long lasting impact of the late Col. Gadafi’s sponsorship of terrorism has been revealed to a House of Commons Committee.

And Ballymena man, Billy O’Flaherty, provided some of the hardest hitting evidence to the Westminster sitting.

Billy, known far and wide for his outstanding dedication to youth football in the local area, pulled no punches as he was quizzed about the devastation which a bomb - made with Gadafi’s semtex - had caused to him, his colleagues and their families.

And he agreed with sentiments expressed that the government will be “haunted” for years over their failure to help them secure compensation from Libya.

Appearing remotely before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee last month, Billy was among several witnesses who spoke frankly of the injuries and bereavement they suffered as result of weapons supplied to the IRA by the Gaddafi regime.

They also put on record their disgust at a recent decision not to publish or act on a report by William Shawcross, which examined if victims could be compensated using frozen Libyan funds in the UK.

Phyllis Carrothers lost her husband Douglas, an RUC reservist, to an IRA car bomb in 1991.

Jonathan Ganesh, from the Docklands Victims Association, was seriously injured in the London Docklands bombing of 1996.

Billy O’Flaherty recalled the moment he received life-changing injuries as a young RUC officer when a car bomb caused an armoured police vehicle he was travelling in to flip on its roof in 1989.

“There was a car in a layby packed full of (Semtex)...the bomb was detonated. If you can imagine it blew an armoured car up into the air...and the car landed on what was left of its roof," he said.

“It was as if it had been put through a shredder. I was put through the air onto the beach.”

He lost his left arm above the elbow and his right leg below the knee, as well as suffering burns and sight loss.

Two of his RUC colleagues were trapped inside the vehicle, and said it was only the first aid provided by local people that had saved their lives at the time.

Mr O'Flaherty said it was only the support from his Chief Constable at the time that allowed to him to continue his police career and support his family, with limited compensation available at the time.

Jonathan Ganesh spoke of the deep hurt the recent government announcement had caused, coming as a serious blow after 15 years of campaigning for victims.

Asked why those affected by the Libyan sponsored terrorism could not instead apply to the new Stormont pension scheme for Troubles victims, he told the committee there was a profound moral obligation on the government to hold Libya to account for their actions.

“I think that would be totally inappropriate. The whole point of our campaign would be that we would hold Gaddafi to account.

“We did not want money from the UK taxpayer, we were adamant...that Gaddafi paid the French, Germans and Americans," he said.

“The moral principle is holding Gaddafi to account and his regime. If this is not done it will leave a terrible legacy and tarnish the UK’s image completely.

“That’s the whole point, you want to dissuade a future dictator who wants to arm a terrorist group that you will be held to account.”

He added: “Morally, it’s the right thing to do, to say to somebody who armed a terrorist group, who supplied tremendous weaponry and training to think they could walk away scot free and think it’s down to the UK taxpayer.”

Committee chair Simon Hoare commented: “That’s a very powerful point to make, it certainly resonates with me.

“It’s the wider message, that it sends out to regimes that might at some point seek to replicate how Gaddafi operated and conducted himself on the international stage.”

Aileen Quinton, a former senior civil servant who lost her mother Alberta in the 1987 Enniskillen bombing, said she had low expectations of the government announcement but was "horrified" by the decision not to publish the findings and felt the government's "contempt was becoming more thinly veiled".

The Ballymena Guardian has obtained a copy of the evidence presented at the committee’s hearing and, with the permission of Billy O’Flaherty, we print an edited version here for the first time.

Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Oral evidence: Compensation for victims of Gaddafi-sponsored IRA attacks, HC 1283

Thursday 15 April 2021

Members present: Simon Hoare (Chair); Mr Gregory Campbell; Stephen Farry; Mr Robert Goodwill; Claire Hanna; Fay Jones; Ian Paisley.

Q77 Chair Simon Hoare :

I will start by asking .. for a snapshot as to your response to the appointment of William Shawcross and all the attendant narrative that sat around it, which was he had been appointed to find a solution and to come up with proposals, and that the Government would accept the proposals, and then to the written ministerial statement of a few weeks ago from Minister Cleverly, which was, “We have received the report. We are not publishing it. We are not doing anything about it.” Could you just take us through your rollercoaster of emotions, for want of a better phrase?

Billy O’Flaherty: We had all hoped that at last something was going to be done about it, because we had known for a long time that Gaddafi was involved in this.

“I was glad to see Mr Shawcross being appointed because his appointment gave us some hope, but when I saw the thing that came out last week, I just thought it showed no respect whatsoever to any of the victims.

“I felt very taken aback. We were being treated very dismissively. Just sending that report out before they went off on their break showed no respect whatsoever to any of the victims.

Q79 Chair Simon Hoare: Do you feel that the Government are dealing with this by thinking that it is too difficult to deal with, that too much water has gone under the bridge and “Let us turn a page and move on”?

Billy O’Flaherty: Yes, exactly. That is the way I feel. The longer this goes on, the more victims are going to pass away. There are people who are not going to be with us much longer.

“Maybe it suits them to drag it on and on. With the incident I was in, there were three colleagues who survived a bombing, and I am the only one who is still alive. Maybe if they wait it out long enough, I will not be here much longer either.

Q80 Chair Simon Hoare: Mr O’Flaherty, would you characterise it as effectively running down the clock?

Billy O’Flaherty: Yes, of course. What other way can you look at it?

Q81 Chair Simon Hoare: I have yet to find a satisfactory explanation as to why other Governments were able to secure compensation packages from the Libyan authorities and the UK Government did not and has not. Maybe you have received an explanation; if you have and you felt able to share it with us, that would be helpful. Do you have any light to shed on that?

Billy O’Flaherty: I do not think our Government want to rock the boat. They may have another picture in mind. There is something else going on and they are not wanting to rock the boat with the Libyans.

It is quite simple to see that. To quote a Minister from a few years ago, he said at that time that he was not prepared to put pressure on Libya because he did not think it was appropriate. They are not going to rock the boat against the Libyans. They are hoping to look at the clock and mark time until very few victims will be left to challenge them.

Claire Hanna: We understand how onerous this whole process has been, on top of the experiences you have already had. I was hoping, for context, that you could describe your experiences of Gaddafi-sponsored IRA terrorism.

Billy O’Flaherty: I was a police officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Following that, I continued in the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I retired about 10 years ago, but I was able to get my 30 years completed after going through a bomb blast.

In 1989 I was in an armoured police car in Cushendall, which is on the north coast of County Antrim. The Cushendall area was predominately a nationalist area but it was not republican; the people got on well with their local police. It was something like that programme on TV, Heartbeat, where the police were generally welcomed in most places, but obviously whenever we were there, there were people from the republican side who were watching and saw that we were an easy target. It was a Friday afternoon, a lovely, bright sunny day. We were driving along the road in an armoured police car.

We were driving past a place called the Red Arch. As we drove past there was a car parked by a layby, packed full of explosives. All explosives from 1985 contained Semtex, so it had to have been Semtex. I was told by some of the bomb experts at the time, because of the injuries and burns I received, that it definitely was Semtex. That is what I was told at the time.

The bomb was detonated. If you can imagine, it blew our armoured car up into the air, doing a Fosbury flop.

The car landed on what was left of its roof, because the car was as if it had been put through a shredder. I was fired through the air and on to the beach.

When we talk about the beach in County Antrim, we are not talking about sandy beaches and palm trees; it was just pure granite rock. I was fired through the air.

I lost my left arm above the elbow and my right leg below the knee, and my left leg was badly shattered and broken; there were various cuts and bruises, and my whole body was burned; I lost my sight—everything.

My two colleagues were trapped inside the vehicle. By this time, the vehicle was upside down, and there was fuel everywhere.

There were a lot of local people at the time who came and gave us a lot of first aid; if it was not for them, we would have been dead. I was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital, and I remember talking to my consultant doctor, who told me at the time that it was basic first aid at the scene that had saved our lives.

I was able to get back to work. I carried on going back to work because I could not afford not to work. Even with any compensation that you may have got, I had only about only six years’ service, so I could not have afforded to have left the police, et cetera.

Thank goodness that at that time, in 1989, the chief constable was very supportive. I was able to return, not doing the things that I usually did, but come back into community work, which I carried on doing.

We all survived the actual bomb blast, which was a miracle. If I showed you the car, you would say that nobody ever got out of that car alive.

Two weeks after the bomb blast, one of my colleagues died of a complication, whereas the other officer who was with me died seven years later of an unrelated incident.

I am the only one left of the three of us. That is why I am thinking, the longer the Gaddafi thing drags on, whether I will ever see this thing coming to an end or being resolved. I do not know.

Q83 Ian Paisley: It is absolutely essential, therefore, that the Foreign Office gets the message that it has to do something for these folks, and it has to do it fast. Mr O’Flaherty, could I ask you the same question about the adequacy or otherwise of the support you were given? What contact did you have with the authorities in terms of compensation?

Billy O’Flaherty: There was nothing from Government authorities.

The only help I received was internally within the police family, from people whom I would have spoken to or within my own federation and union. People advised me on what I should and should not be doing. There was nothing at all from the Government—zero. When I was injured, I had only about six years’ service, as I said, so I could not have afforded to leave the police at that time. I could not have afforded to go off.

At the time, my daughter was not even two years old. I could not have afforded it. I had a family to bring up. With so little service, I could not have had a pension that I could have survived on.

As I said earlier, I was lucky enough that the chief constable at the time was able to find me a job. I do not know if he would be able to do that in this day and age, but in those days they gave you a lot of support. I carried on and got a job in community work.

I could never have survived on the compensation I got. At that time it was something like seven years’ pay. How was I going to live on that for the rest of my life, along with a young family, et cetera? I could not have afforded it at that time. I was lucky to get back to work.

Q87 Ian Paisley: Mr O’Flaherty, I do not want to be pejorative, but can I ask you whether you feel that the lack of support was an insult, given what you had given to your country?

Billy O’Flaherty: Yes, to say the least. There was a famous saying in the police at that time that you were only a number.

That was never as true as it was at that time. It is true: you are only a number. In terms of what we were giving to the Government at that time, there was nothing coming back; it was not being reciprocated at all. I felt that way; at that time, it was just the general feeling.

I was not surprised that we did not get support from the Government because we were not expecting it in the first place. It was disappointing.

Q88 Ian Paisley: In terms of the long-term consequences, obviously you have horrific physical injures, but you have not allowed those physical injuries to stand in your way.

You have become a coach to a very successful local football team. I see you recently won an award from McDonald’s for your community spirit, and you have been awarded a national honour. It has not held you back in terms of that, but if that is what you are like post an injury, what could you have given if it had not happened to you?

Billy O’Flaherty: It is possible that I could have done this or that, but I did not see it that way. I was not going to let these people hold me back in the way they had hoped.

I took the view that, if I wake up in the morning and I do anything, it is another day and I have survived. I have shown to those people, who tried to put me six feet under, that I am still alive.

Over 30 years later I am still here; I get involved in different things within the community. As you say, we have over 250 kids from all sides of the community within our club. We run a club with something like 24 or 25 teams.

I am getting a little old for coaching now, unfortunately, so I just stand on the side lines and complain. We have 250 kids. It is the way forward. You have to get kids and young people early and not let their minds be interfered with by people who will try to guide them towards a particular way.

Q91 Chair Simon Hoare: How important is it to you that victims and survivors of those who were affected by Libyan-sponsored/facilitated activity are carved out and looked at separately, as a free-standing group? If you look at the tail end of the written ministerial statement .. it says people can now apply to the Executive in Stormont for some money, but it is encapsulated within the general survivors of the Troubles type of funding. Is it important that those who suffered because of Libya are viewed and dealt with separately, or does it not necessarily matter?

Billy O’Flaherty: We were talking about Semtex and so on coming from Libya. If you read up on the fact that there were allegedly four shipments that came into Ireland, landing in Wicklow, full of 150 tonnes of arms and explosives, it was not just Semtex.

We had a shopping list of AK-47s, SAM-7 missiles and RPG-7 rocket launchers, along with pistols and other things. There were shootings. These people are not just involved in bombings, et cetera. There are various others; there is a whole shopping list of terror that these people have brought, especially to the shores of Ireland, and Northern Ireland in particular. We have suffered from this.

From 1985, experts would say that every bomb detonated by the IRA in Northern Ireland contained Semtex.

Gaddafi had his fingers in various puddings here, and he was responsible for various things directly and indirectly.

It is not just about that. That is just something I wanted to say. They are both interwoven. You cannot really separate them, because Gaddafi has blood on his hands with every incident in Northern Ireland.

I am sure the authorities will be able to trace back where these weapons come from. You do not buy AK-47s at your Sunday market.

I am looking through this list, and I have friends and colleagues who have been victims.

I have a friend who was riddled by an AK-47.

I have a mate who was hit by an RPG-7 rocket launcher.

I have other friends who have either been killed or injured. Gaddafi brought in a shopping list of terror. Between 1985 and 1987, four shiploads of arms and explosives came into the Republic of Ireland and were all ferried up north.

Q97 Mr Goodwill: In terms of your engagement with Mr Shawcross, did you seek to meet him or did he seek to make a plea for victims such as yourself to get in touch with him?

Billy O’Flaherty: I would love to have met the guy, to be honest, and not only myself.

I did not even know much about him until my local MP, Mr Paisley, made me aware that he was the person responsible for this.

He never contacted me. I have quite a lot of contacts within the province here, and I have contacted a lot of my friends, and I know different people in different victims’ groups, and they are all completely unaware.

He never contacted them either, so what was he doing the whole time? Who was he speaking to? He was not speaking to anybody who I know, and I know a lot of people.

I was in the United States about a year and a half ago. I was in Washington, on holiday.

If you see the way that the American service personnel—soldiers, police, et cetera—are respected and are shown some credit for what they are and what they do, it is unbelievable compared to here in Britain.

We cover the thing up and pretend it does not exist. I noticed last year, in particular, how well the American military are respected by the public and how helpful people are to them, et cetera, compared to here.

You would think in Britain we are ashamed of our service personnel, police officers, soldiers and service men and women.

We should be giving more credit to these people who, after all, are here to serve us and the public.

I was totally gutted by this dismissive report that came out. How dare this guy treat us like a schoolmaster and put us in a classroom, instead of showing respect for what we have in this country, with our police force and military?

That is the way I felt. I felt it was disgraceful. You also have to understand that there are an awful lot of people in the forces from England, Scotland and Wales, who have served with distinction in Northern Ireland through the years and may have been left out of this.

I have worked with many of them, and a lot of them have been injured in these things here as well, through Gaddafi. I was very disappointed at the dismissive way we were treated by the report that came out.

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