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Court approves challenge to IRA releases

THE ULSTER Unionist Party joined forces with a victim of IRA terrorism yesterday in its effort to halt the release of Republican prisoners from Northern Ireland's jails.

Michelle Williamson, who lost both parents in an IRA bombing, overcame the first preliminary hurdle in a legal battle challenging the Government's decision not to suspend prisoner releases despite continuing IRA violence. Last month Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said she did not believe the IRA ceasefire was breaking down, despite a murder and other illegalities including an attempt to smuggle guns to Ireland from America.

Early-release legislation requires Ms Mowlam to consider whether paramilitary groups are maintaining unequivocal ceasefires. Yesterday she indicated she will contest the attempt to overturn her decision.

Politically the case is seen as highly significant, since it is regarded as an attempt by the Ulster Unionists to pursue Sinn Fein through the courts. This is viewed as a further deterioration in the already poor relationship between the parties.

Commentators and other politicians also interpreted it as a sign that anti-Good Friday Agreement elements are gaining ground within the Ulster Unionist Party.

The move is particularly associated with Jeffrey Donaldson, who walked out of the negotiations that produced the agreement last year.

His stock has perceptibly risen within the party in recent months as Unionist opinion has become more anti- agreement. Yesterday he accompanied Ms Williamson to court in Belfast with the party leader, David Trimble.

Andrew Mackay, the Conservative Northern Ireland spokesman, said: "The terrorist ceasefires have been severely breached and as a result the release of terrorist prisoners should be halted immediately."

Lembit Opik, the Liberal Democrat Northern Ireland spokesman, condemned the Tory reaction: "What really bothers me is Andrew Mackay's delight that this extra tension has arrived." He said that hardliners among the Ulster Unionists were now in control of the party.

Ms Williamson lost her parents to an IRA bomb in Shankill Road in 1993, when nine people died. Yesterday she said: "I am delighted that finally I might be given the chance of justice for my mother and father and all the innocent victims."

Mr Trimble said the case was "a matter of upholding the Good Friday Agreement". He said the early release of terrorist prisoners should apply only to those organisations that maintained a complete and unequivocal ceasefire and his party believed this was not the case.

Mr Justice Kerr, granting Ms Williamson's application for judicial review, pointed out that for the moment she had to satisfy only a modest test - that there was a case worthy of further inquiry. He said: "It's clear to me that the applicant has an arguable case."