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Blair raises hope of early freedom for jailed soldiers

Ulster prisoner releases: Prime Minister's claim that Mo Mowlam is reviewing guardsmen's cases catches Whitehall by surprise
TONY BLAIR yesterday raised hopes that two Scots Guardsmen serving life sentences for the shooting of a teenager in Northern Ireland could soon be freed from prison.

But the Prime Minister caught the Northern Ireland Office by surprise when he told MPs that the cases of James Fisher and Mark Wright were being reviewed by Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Fisher, 28, from Ayr, and Wright, 24, from Arbroath, were jailed for killing an 18-year-old Catholic man while on active duty. Their release might be seen as a move to buy off Conservative MPs opposed to the release of IRA terrorist prisoners.

Tory sources last night denied that there had been any backroom deal with Ms Mowlam when she met members of the Shadow Cabinet sub-committee on Northern Ireland on Monday to reassure them about the legislation on prisoner releases.

William Hague, who chairs the committee, told Mr Blair that their release was a "matter of urgency". Last night he was writing to Ms Mowlam to seek clarification.

Andrew Mackay, the Tory spokesman on Ulster, said: "We hope that this is a step in the right direction. The Prime Minister's response was more positive than that I received from the Northern Ireland Secretary when I raised the issue a few weeks ago."

The campaign for the soldiers' release was stepped up after it became clear that terrorist prisoners could be released under the Northern Ireland peace deal. The Government faced criticism that the soldiers were being denied early release while terrorists were being freed.

Mr Blair told the Commons at question time that Ms Mowlam had been unable to examine the cases prior to a court case on 22 May. "Before this court case was concluded, Ms Mowlam was not able to conduct her own review. Now that is out of the way, she will do that as quickly as possible."

The guardsmen had been seeking a judicial review of Ms Mowlam's refusal to refer their cases immediately to the Life Sentences Review Board. But Mr Justice Coghlin said that there were insufficient grounds for quashing her decision.

Ms Mowlam had indicated that their cases would be open to review under the normal procedures in October. Tomorrow the Northern Ireland Office will publish the legislation to implement the release of prisoners and Mr Blair gave renewed assurances to MPs that it would contain the conditions laid out in his speech in Balmoral, Northern Ireland, during the referendum "yes" campaign.

Meanwhile, the Government yesterday announced the membership of the new commission on Northern Ireland's future policing, following a delay to allow negotiations with Dublin.

The Irish government is believed to have had misgivings about the originally proposed make-up of the body, which is to review policing requirements and structures.

The commission's chairman Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong, is to be joined by a mixture of local and international members. These include Sir John Smith, formerly of the Metropolitan Police; the former Northern Ireland Ombudsman, Dr Maurice Hayes; Lucy Woods, the local head of British Telecom; and the leading Belfast QC Peter Smith. In addition, there will be two policing experts from the US and a third from Canada.

The announcement was welcomed in Dublin by the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.