Leading article: Remember those who risk their lives

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Leading article: Remember those who risk their lives

OF ALL the compromises involved in the Northern Ireland peace process, those surrounding the release of paramilitary prisoners are the hardest to take. Quite apart from the moral probity of releasing convicted killers before their term is served, there are practical problems as well. If the Maze is eventually to close, and "de-militarisation" proceed by shrinking the RUC, what is to happen to all those who have served the Crown in its long conflict in Northern Ireland?

Unfortunately, the Government has not done very well in beginning to answer this question. There are reports that the Treasury, against the advice of the Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, is trying to limit redundancy payments to ex-prison officers to an amount within her existing budget. A more short-sighted piece of penny-pinching would be difficult to imagine.

These reports send exactly the wrong signal to the forces of law and order in Northern Ireland, at just the wrong time. As prisoner releases were unsettling Unionist opinion, and many within the RUC, the news that terms for those laid off were going to be decided by the Treasury in London was the last thing the peace process needed.

Quite apart from this, there is the moral issue. Prison officers and RUC personnel have put their lives on the line for the public time after time. Prison officers have been expected to tolerate a virtual prisoner- of-war camp atmosphere inside the Maze, complete with "consultation" with the inmates. RUC patrols have come under fire from snipers day after day.

To say that Sinn Fein, which spent decades trying to undermine the British government, can now be pillars of that rule, is one thing. To say that those who always supported the rule of law should be jettisoned on the cheap is quite another. The Treasury, in the shape of its Chief Secretary, Stephen Byers, should reconsider its request of Mo Mowlam. Reconciliation and fair treatment should apply to all sides in the Province; that should include those employed by the state just as much as anyone else.