Early release plan for 100 terrorists 'is no amnesty'

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Suggestions of an early release for up to 100 terrorist prisoners drew a mixed reaction in Northern Ireland yesterday, ranging from muted welcome in some quarters to hostility in others.

While John Major said the time was not yet right for a change, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is believed to favour increasing remission from 33 per cent of sentence to 50 per cent in an effort to kick-start the stalled peace process.

But with the first anniversary of the IRA ceasefire looming at the end of August, and the inevitable pressure for substantive progress that will be placed on republican politicians by hard-line supporters, Sinn Fein and loyalist leaders were dismissive of the planned changes in sentencing for the Province's 600 terrorist inmates.

Even the suggestion that Sir Patrick might give ground soon on moving the one loyalist and 34 republican prisoners jailed in England back to prisons in Northern Ireland, a long-cherished demand, was given only a lukewarm reception.

Under the plan measures to reinstate 50 per cent remission for fixed- term prisoners, which was reduced to 33 per cent in 1989 in an effort to deter people becoming involved in terrorism, would be introduced in the Queen's Speech, to enable legislation next year. Those serving life sentences - including terrorists such as Sean Kelly, who carried out the Shankill fish shop bombing, and Michael Stone, who was responsible for the Milltown Cemetery massacre - would be excluded since they can be released only at the discretion of the Secretary of State.

However, a change in the rules on remission would free about 100 immediately, evenly split between loyalists and republicans, with all fixed-term inmates out by 2004, according to figures compiled by Niacro, the prisoners' resettlement charity.

Pressure had been growing on Sir Patrick to move on the issue from both sides of the religious divide, as it is seen as one of the easier issues to deal with if Northern Ireland is to have lasting peace.

The remission plan was seen at Westminster yesterday as the first stage of a deal with the IRA leading to a possible early break-through over the decommissioning of their weapons.

However, the Prime Minister yesterday poured cold water on any movement, though he left room for manoeuvre. "There is no question of an amnesty for prisoners in Northern Ireland," he told MPs. "What we do is keep under review remission rates. That is the case and will continue to be the case. But I do not think the time is yet right for a change."

His comments will be welcomed by mainstream Unionist politicians who made it clear that they are against any release of terrorist prisoners as part of the peace process.

But among those proposing changes is John Taylor, the Ulster Unionist spokesman on security and MP for Strangford, who will today visit the Maze prison to speak to loyalist paramilitary leaders to support their demands for release.

There was grudging support in republican circles. Mairead Ui Adhmaill, whose husband, Feilim, is serving 25 years for conspiracy to cause explosions in England, said: "Of course it would be welcome for those who would get out and those families with people in jail in England. But it must happen immediately, and we need more."

But if there was hope such an announcement might help the peace process, it seemed ill founded. Mitchel McLaughlin, Sinn Fein's chairman, said that such moves would be "much too little, too late", adding: "They are insufficient to meet the need, the urgent need, to move into all-party dialogue."