Jim Swire: one of the noblest men alive


By Kenneth Roy

As we were packing up for the move, one press cutting, and one alone, fluttered out of a desk drawer stuffed with long-discarded items. It was a three-year-old piece from the Scottish Sunday Express with a familiar byline.

Why did I keep this one small product of British journalism when all the others that had passed through my hands in our nine years at Kilmarnock had been wrapped round the proverbial fish and chips? What was its special quality?

The headline was unusual enough. ‘Mercy the best route for us all’, it said simply. It would be hard to argue with this conclusion, as we see its truth being worked out in so many daily situations. Yet the media do not generally do mercy. The media do punishment and the media do revenge. Old Testament to a man – or, just as ferociously, woman.

In the case of Megrahi, whose photograph occupies a quarter of the page of this cutting, they would have had him executed years ago. Why, it is only a few days since one of the tabloids – the Sun, of course – used the word ‘Fiend’ to describe him in a front-page headline, announcing excitedly that the SAS was pursuing him.

In the lexicon of the popular press, the SAS is no longer so much a body of fighting men as a macho symbol of clinical aggression to be invoked, usually symbolically, whenever a target of its homicidal lust hoves conveniently into view. It is impossible to say whether there was a shred of fact in the Sun’s latest boys’ own adventure, but the SAS would not have had far to look: they would have found their target on his deathbed. How’s that for anti-climax?

Meanwhile, the deputy prime minister, the ever-opportunistic Nick Clegg, was not gunning for Megrahi’s head, merely for his return to prison – wired up to an oxygen mask, presumably, but not before he was chained to his own stretcher. Charming fellow, Mr Clegg. He reminds me of the old saying about Liberals, that they are the sort of people who fire their staff at Christmas.

So, mercy. Not a lot of it around these days, though a spot of gentle rain fell from the High Court bench yesterday when it decided to free Michele Selby. Elsewhere, scarcely a drop. How come, then, this dirty word was permitted on page 26 of a decent family newspaper on 26 October 2008? You will recall the headline: ‘Mercy the best route for us all’.

The familiar byline was that of Dr Jim Swire, spokesman for UK Families Flight 103. At the distance of almost three years, his leader-page article has a certain poignancy. It was written 10 months before Kenny MacAskill, Scotland’s justice secretary, freed Megrahi from Greenock prison on compassionate grounds, but already Dr Swire was begging the Scottish government to order his release – ‘perhaps to a special facility where he could be with his family, yet be safe and have specialist palliative care to hand’. In August 2009, the special facility, rightly or wrongly, turned out to be Libya.

With Jim Swire, there is a more painful dimension: the human factor. His daughter Flora was one of the 270 lives – many of them young lives – lost 38 minutes after Flight 103 left Heathrow that day.

Unlike the good old British journalist – whom there is no need to bribe ‘seeing what he will do unbribed’ – Dr Swire and the other UK relatives had no desire for vengeance. ‘We wanted the truth,’ he writes.

I have spoken at length to the victims of mass murder – at Dunblane and on 7/7 – and the search for the truth is a constant pre-occupation of the families; it over-rides everything else. It is always accompanied by a determination that those who died, and the events themselves, will never be forgotten. (The best book about Dunblane, by Mick North, is actually called ‘Dunblane: Never Forget). So Jim Swire’s statement, ‘We wanted the truth’, should surprise no-one who has explored the psychology of victims.

For Dr Swire, the search for the truth led to one inescapable conclusion: the innocence of Megrahi. It was the evidence at the trial in Holland that convinced him that the case against Megrahi was invalid. Time and again that evidence pointed to the involvement of Iran and Syria, not Libya.

Robert Black QC, the architect of the Camp Zeist trial, recently put it to me another way: the trial persuaded him that there was no evidence to justify conviction, but it was only when he met Megrahi in prison that he knew he was innocent. There is a difference; sometimes all the difference in the world. Robert Black, like Jim Swire, has fought tirelessly to establish Megrahi’s innocence and made a thorough nuisance of himself with the Edinburgh legal establishment. I have never asked him how much the campaign has cost him professionally or personally. Perhaps he has given up caring.

With Jim Swire, there is a more painful dimension: the human factor. His daughter Flora was one of the 270 lives – many of them young lives – lost 38 minutes after Flight 103 left Heathrow that day. He had less reason than most – he had no reason at all, other than a personal commitment to humanity and justice – to devote the rest of his life to proving the innocence of the man convicted of Flora’s murder. HIs self-sacrifice, in so many ways, is humbling. He is now a man in his 70s, yet still he goes on fighting for Megrahi.

I have met him only once: in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when I chaired a public meeting at which he spoke. I thought then he was an impressive human being, but my admiration for him has deepened over the years. Now I think he is one of the noblest men alive.

When Jim Swire wrote that piece in the Scottish Sunday Express in 2008, it was almost six years since Megrahi had requested a second appeal. After three years of delays, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission had agreed that his trial might have been unfair, had conceded in effect that there were gaping holes in the prosecution, and that the case should go to further appeal. His frustration at the lack of progress, at the continuing obstruction of justice, leaps from the page.

How much more frustrated must he feel now? The justice secretary’s decision to release Megrahi was well-founded, but the subsequent failure of the Scottish Government to release all the facts known to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission is a continuing scandal and a blot on the conscience of Scotland.

Of one thing we can be sure: Megrahi’s imminent death will not put a stop to Jim Swire’s quest. That will go on as long as it takes.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review