Chief Political Correspondent
The Irish government has asked the Home Secretary to transfer 26 IRA prisoners from British jails to the Republic as part of a new attempt to kick-start the peace process.
Michael Howard is believed to be reluctant to agree to a general transfer of prisoners - many of whom are serving long sentences for bomb offences in Britain - into Irish custody, if there is any likelihood that they will be given early release.
Northern Ireland ministers privately believe Mr Howard would face fewer problems at home if he allowed the prisoners to be transferred, as they present the greatest risk of a break-out. The escape of IRA prisoners from Whitemoor prison contributed to the sacking of Derek Lewis as head of the prison service.
However, Mr Howard shows no sign of following the lead taken by Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, this week with emergency legislation to allow the early release of IRA and loyalist terrorist prisoners in Ulster prisons.
Legislation came into force yesterday in Ireland allowing the transfer of prisoners directly from Britain to the Republic, but officials said it required the agreement of the two governments, and the prisoners involved. The prisoners' families are keen for the transfers to go ahead so they are to make more frequent visits, and they are also hopeful that the Irish government will continue with the early release of prisoners started earlier this year.
John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, believes the early release of prisoners is an important confidence-building part of the peace process.
The IRA has given priority to the release of its prisoners as one of the key conditions for ensuring lasting peace in Northern Ireland, but Mr Howard remains concerned that the threat of a return to violence will continue until arms are surrendered by the IRA.
In a separate move, the Home Secretary is facing cross-party pressure for two republican prisoners, Patrick Kelly and Michael O'Brien - one of whom is suffering from cancer - to be transferred to prisons either in Northern Ireland or the Republic "in view of their compelling compassionate circumstances". A Commons motion demanding the transfers has been signed by senior Tory backbenchers Peter Temple-Morris and Peter Bottomley.Reuse content