The Government yesterday rejected pressure from Irish ministers to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which is due for renewal next month. But senior Home Office sources said Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, will make it clear the powers will notbe invoked if the cessation of violence by the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries continues.
The Prime Minister's office made it clear that the Prevention of Terrorism Act would be renewed next month, in spite of the decision by the Irish Government to repeal its own Special Powers Act.
Dick Spring, the Irish foreign minister, said repeal or relaxation of the PTA would "make a considerable contribution to creating a climate" for progress on the peace process with Sinn Fein and the IRA.
"We don't intend to give up the powers until we are sure they are not needed," a Downing Street source said. The discovery of a Semtex bomb in Newry was seen by senior Tory MPs and Ulster Unionists as clear evidence of the need to keep the Act. The IRA yesterday denied that it was involved in planting the 1lb device.
Labour leaders united with Ulster Unionists and the Liberal Democrats in calling for a fundamental review of the powers under the Act, introduced in the aftermath of the Birmingham pub bombings in 1970s.
The Home Secretary received the annual review of the Act by John Rowe QC on 3 February and Home Office sources dismissed the need for a separate review.
Michael Howard will tell the Commons that the Act is needed to protect Britain against international sources of terrorism. The suspects held for the bombing of the Israeli embassy in London were detained under the PTA powers.
Labour plans to vote against renewal of the Act, as it did last year, unless it has assurances from the Home Secretary.
A Labour spokesman said: "Labour accepts the need for anti-terrorism legislation. However, at a time of great change in Northern Ireland, there is widespread recognition of the need to look afresh at the laws that have grown up in response to paramilitary violence."
Jack Straw, the Shadow Home Secretary, will be offered a briefing on Privy Council terms by the Home Secretary on secret security and intelligence reports about the continued terrorist operations, in spite of the ceasefire. Tony Blair, the Labour leader,will also be offered a Privy Council briefing by the Prime Minister.
The Ulster Unionists do not like the powers under the PTA because they treat Ulster differently from the rest of the UK. They regard the exclusion orders as internal exile. David Trimble, a leading Ulster Unionist MP, called for a fundamental review of the PTA and other emergency legislation.
But Mr Trimble said the PTA should be renewed. "There is no reason why the state should disarm, especially as terrorists have not disarmed," he said.
Senior Tory backbenchers last night met Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to underline their concern at the alienation of the Ulster Unionists over the leaked framework document proposing a cross-border body.
The move followed a meeting between the Tory MPs and James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist leader.Reuse content