'The Lockerbie Bombing – A Father's Search for Justice' by Jim Swire and Peter Biddulph (published by Birlinn)
I heard the news standing in a chippy in Renfrew. A grainy TV newsflash indicated there had been a huge explosion in Lockerbie, possibly connected to a petrol station. When I got home, it was clear that death and mayhem had rained from the skies that night in December 1988 rather than erupting from below. Within a few hours, Pan Am Flight 103 from Heathrow to New York was identified as the plane that had exploded over the town, killing all 259 people onboard and a further 11 on the ground.
Among the dead was Flora Swire, a medical student and talented musician from Worcestershire heading to Boston to celebrate her 24th birthday. So begins a 30-year odyssey now recounted by her father Dr Jim Swire in his new book The Lockerbie Bombing – A Father's Search for Justice
, co-written with Peter Biddulph.
For over three decades, Lockerbie has been a fixture in British and American public life. From the iconic image of the shattered cockpit of the 'Maid of the Seas' lying on a Scottish hillside, through the unique trial of two Libyans under Scottish law at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, to the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi by the Scottish Government in 2009 on what were claimed to be compassionate grounds, but which was probably more about commerce than cancer.
Another constant over those decades has been Jim Swire's crusade to uncover the truth of who was behind the bombing and why his daughter died that December evening. The image of him holding Flora's photograph to his chest as he travelled the world prodding and provoking officialdom, but also often just bearing witness on behalf of the bereaved relatives, has paralleled the official investigations.
Swire's book also tells two parallel tales. The first is his personal story of how his search for the truth became also consuming and defined the second half of his life. How he channelled his grief and anger at having his beloved daughter taken from him into relentless advocacy on behalf of the victims. How he planted 'Flora's Wood' with thousands of trees near his home with the letter F highlighted by a stand of 250 oaks in its centre so that it could be seen from the air as planes pass overhead.
His story is told in short terse sentences. Snippets that give a narrow window into his decades of campaigning. But many of those short sentences are spring loaded; taut with emotion and insight into both the process and his self-reflections on how he has been transformed by it. He doesn't shy away from the impact that his obsession has had on the rest of his family. Multiple times over the decades, from his first dangerous trip to Tripoli to meet with Gaddafi to carrying a fake bomb onto a transatlantic flight to highlight continued lapses in security, he's acted like he had nothing left to lose. Yet he has a wife and two other children who he acknowledges haven't got anywhere near the attention from him that Flora has over the last three decades. At one point he admits 'they were all gifted children, but from the start Flora was my darling', and he's tortured by the thought of her falling through the darkness still alive and strapped to her seat, fully aware of her imminent death.
He also confesses with admirable candour that, despite the tragedy that set him on his journey, there have been moments of intense satisfaction. Opportunities to enjoy the spotlight and savour victories in his David versus Goliath battles. At one point, he imagines standing before the assembled press and saying 'I loved my daughter so deeply that I found a way to move the world', but he recognises the presumptuous vanity of putting himself at the centre of things. He would obviously trade all those victories to have his daughter back, but there's validation and gratification when his badgering opens new avenues of enquiry when many other relatives were ready to just accept the official story and move on. As officialdom keeps trying to prescribe a sedative for the public interest in Lockerbie, Swire sees it as his duty to jolt them awake with new questions and keep the story in the news.
The second story woven through Swire's broadly chronological narrative is the erosion of his faith in governments of all stripes. Swire's background is establishment. His father was a colonel in the Royal Engineers and he was educated from an early age in English boarding schools. He was wired to respect authority, but over time he comes to see the official story as just that; a convenient narrative that serves multiple geopolitical aims without concerning itself with the actual truth. Over the decades, he comes to understand the 'subtle secrecies' deployed by all the state actors involved and their willingness to sacrifice the truth for what they see as broader objectives. As early as 1990, he is told by an American congressman 'your government and ours know exactly what happened, but they're never going to tell', and it's conversations like that which fuel his obsession.
Having followed the Lockerbie story over the last 30 years, it's still jarring to see Swire catalogue (sometimes as he admits in too much detail) the official misdirection and stonewalling, the obfuscation and delays, the bribery of key witnesses, and the often blatant concealment or disregard for vital evidence. Swire also details how on multiple occasions the intelligence services of both the US and the UK tried to infiltrate and misdirect the efforts of the relatives to get to the truth.
For the first few months after the tragedy, all evidence seemed to point towards the bomb being the work of an Iranian-funded Palestinian terrorist group, with the motive being retaliation for the USS Vincennes shooting down an Iranian airliner on its way to Mecca with 290 passengers onboard. Then suddenly, about a year after the bombing, the finger is pointed at Libya and that becomes the official story that persists to this day.
Initially, Swire trusts the investigative process, risking his own life to travel to Tripoli to try and persuade Gaddafi to hand over the suspects for trial. He makes a personal connection with the dictator through the shared loss of their daughters to violence, and some of the most memorable scenes in the book are Swire repeatedly wielding his grief and basic humanity as sharp tools to cut through reams of diplomatic red tape.
He is scathing of the role played by Margaret Thatcher's Government in the initial stages of the Lockerbie investigation, but one group of politicians that emerges with some credit is Tony Blair's first administration, with cabinet members including Robin Cook showing genuine empathy for the plight of the victims' families and helping to bring the Libyan suspects to trial.
Having got the accused to Camp Zeist, Swire hopes a compelling prosecution case will bring closure. Instead he's quickly convinced that a miscarriage of justice is being committed. The image of him holding a handwritten note against the plexiglass in the courtroom trying to draw defence lawyers' attention to vital pieces of prosecution evidence going unchallenged is Kafka-like in its depiction of what it's like being an outsider frustrated by bureaucracy and hidden agendas.
Despite doubts raised by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission and damning evidence that key elements of the prosecution case (such as the provenance of the bomb timer) were simply false, al-Megrahi's conviction has withstood multiple appeals. Having drawn his own conclusion about the safeness of the conviction, Swire befriends al-Megrahi and visits him both in prison in Scotland and again just before he dies in Libya. Again, these are acts of authentic humanitarian concern for another person who, like Swire, has found themselves a pawn in a wider political game.
As an American citizen, it's disappointing but hardly surprising that America doesn't show well in Swire's recounting of the last 30 years. From walk on parts for Oliver North and clandestine drug deals in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, to the CIA's open disdain for the investigation of the Scottish police, to the strong arming of successive British Governments not to dig too deeply into the truth, it's clear that from day one Lockerbie was as much about geopolitics as it was about solving a heinous crime.
Swire now admits that he will never know the truth about who killed his daughter. He draws his own conclusions about what was happening behind the veil of national security and speculates about why the Libyans would take responsibility for the bombing while never actually admitting that they were behind it, but it's still conjecture and not the definitive truth he's pursued for over 30 years. Like 269 other families, he's forced to accept that Flora was just collateral damage. A life cut short by being in the wrong place at the wrong time as the grinding gears of late 1980's Middle East politics took lives on the ground in places like Lebanon but also in the sky above Scotland.
Although there's no tidy end to the story, there's much to admire in both Swire and Biddulph's telling of it, but more importantly in the principled and brave stand of a man who has sacrificed much of his own life in the pursuit of the truth and who never let his daughter become just another statistic. In a world riven with fake news and with voters on both sides of the Atlantic happy to believe all manner of conspiracy-laden drivel, Jim Swire is a role model of someone who has taken the hard path and has been willing to stand up for the sanctity of facts, whatever the personal cost.
Alan McIntyre is a trustee and patron of the Institute of Contemporary Scotland