Dublin to free some IRA men by Christmas

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Up to 30 IRA prisoners are to be released by the Dublin government in what it describes as ``a sensitive and enlightened approach'' to the cessation of IRA violence.

The Minister for Justice, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, confirmed last night that a number of prisoners could expect early release from their sentences, though she gave no exact figures. She also confirmed that talks were taking place with Sinn Fein about the disposal of weapons held by the IRA.

Around 60 IRA prisoners are held in the Irish Republic. The indications are that those sentenced for killing members of the Garda, the Irish police force, will not be among the first to be freed. ``I cannot put a number on it, as I have not made final decisions. But I can confirm that a number will be released between now and Christmas,'' she said.

Mrs Geoghegan-Quinn said in a television interview that the Irish government was in contact with Sinn Fein on the question of disposing of the republican movement's arsenal of weaponry. ``We are not talking about trading prisoners for guns, but the dismantling of IRA arsenals is being actively pursued,'' she said. ``It is being discussed with Sinn Fein.''

The moves demonstrate again that Dublin is intent on setting a faster pace in the peace process than the British government, which has made no public moves about prisoners. The Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis said he was becoming increasingly worried by what he described as the Republic's piecemeal approach to the ceasefire, which was in contrast to John Major's more considered and structured attitude.

In Northern Ireland yesterday it was confirmed that many army bases had quietly dropped the practice of flying the Union Flag on a daily basis.

The flag no longer flies over the frontier town of Crossmaglen, or at many other military emplacements along the border. Republican and nationalist critics have complained that it was inappropriate in entirely nationalist districts, but the army said yesterday that the move was not a response to complaints.

Unionist charges that it showed the authorities were attempting to appease militant republicanism in the wake of the IRA ceasefire were denied by Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Sir Patrick presented the move as a reinterpretation of military guidelines which had been undertaken without political input.