The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, yesterday suggested he would not oppose the freeing of Private Lee Clegg if this opened the way for more extensive releases of prisoners sentenced as a result of the Northern Ireland conflict.

The paratroper was jailed for life for the 1990 murder of Karen Reilly, an 18-year-old shot when the stolen car in which she was a passenger failed to stop at an army checkpoint in Belfast. Clegg was one of 15 soldiers who fired at the car.

Until now, Sinn Fein leaders, including the Derry activist Martin McGuinness, have strongly opposed calls for the soldier's release. In London this week, Mr McGuinness said: "As far as I am concerned Karen Reilly was summarily executed. We're expecting any day now that Karen Reilly will be found guilty by the British establishment of causing the imprisonment of Private Clegg."

Senior figures in the SDLP, including MPs Joe Hendron and Seamus Mallon, the party's deputy leader, this week warned early release for the soldier would cause deep alarm in the nationalist community.

Mr Adams, in Dublin yesterday for his first formal talks with the new Taoiseach, John Bruton, said: "We think it is time to release all prisoners, including Clegg."

The comment suggested the Sinn Fein leader may have judged that the soldier's release is now inevitable following the Prime Minister's confirmation in the Commons on Thursday that moves to consider new evidence in the case were under way.

If that happens, Mr Adams could use it as an important precedent in arguing that other prisoners held as a result of the Troubles should also be considered for early release.

Mr Adams' comment came as he criticised remarks by the Chief Constable of the RUC in the Belfast Irish News newspaper yesterday in which Sir Hugh Annesley argued against early release of prisoners recently convicted of paramilitary killings.

Mr Adams said the moves to free Clegg were "proof that there is no justice for Irish people, but it is OK for a paratrooper to kill an Irish citizen".

On Tuesday, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, announced a review of murder laws as the Tory campaign to release Clegg gathered momentum. This followed concern expressed by the House of Lords over the law when they turned down Clegg's appeal against conviction last week.

Clegg's solicitors have written to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, seeking his release on licence. Dublin is also watching the Clegg affair closely. Mr Bruton said the Irish government had asked for details of the case from the Anglo-Irish Secretariat in Maryfield, Belfast.