Extradition battle begins for IRA jail escapers

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Chief Political Correspondent

Extradition proceedings were started By Britain yesterday in the Republic of Ireland for two IRA prisoners who broke out of Brixton prison four years ago in one of the most embarrassing breaches of security in a British jail.

Nessan Quinlivan and Pearse McCauley were yesterday held for an extradition hearing next Monday after being released with two other IRA prisoners by the Irish Government as a conciliatory gesture to revive the stalled peace process.

The two, who are fighting their extradition, have been on the wanted list in Britain since the Brixton break-out, which sparked a full-scale review of security.

They were being held on charges of conspiracy to murder Sir Charles Tidbury, the former chairman of Whitbread, when they fled. McCauley threatened prison staff with a gun which had been smuggled into the prison in the sole of a training shoe.

Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, denied the extradition was part of a comprehensive deal with Britain on IRA prisoners. However, he confirmed during a visit to London that the Irish Government had applied to the Home Office for the transfer to Irish prisons of 26 IRA prisoners held in Britain.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, is reluctant to allow the transfers without assurances they will not be given early release. The extradition of Quinlivan and McCauley may be seen as a quid-pro-quo, in spite of the denials of a deal by Dublin and London.

Mr Spring confirmed that the Irish release of IRA prisoners was part of the peace process. He underlined the growing anxiety in Dublin at the failure of the British Government to drop its insistence that the IRA should begin decommissioning its weapons as a pre-condition to allowing Sinn Fein into inclusive all-party talks.

The Irish Foreign Minister said a way through the impasse could be found if the parties were brought to the table for talks. That marks a clear split with British ministers who are adamant that the Ulster Unionists will not join the talks if the IRA refuse to give up any arms.

"People are quite frustrated that talks have not begun and we have not got ourselves into a position to commence those talks," he said. "The opportunity that exists now is the best opportunity - perhaps the only opportunity - we have had realistically in the last 25 years to bring the parties together and it behoves all of us to do all we can to bring the parties together."

Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, yesterday said he would be going to Washington next week. He plans to brief advisers to Bill Clinton on the cause of the impasse before the US President visits Britain and Ireland at the end of the month.

Mr Adams is clearly hoping to persuade Mr Clinton to put more pressure on London to back down. Mr Spring was sceptical that any progress would be made before Mr Clinton's visit.

The US president has said he wanted to see all-party talks underway before his visit, butBritish ministers have said they will not be tied to a timetable.

Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, yesterday sought to show Britain is responding to IRA demands for concessions by supporting a decision of the RUC to remove security installations at sites in Londonderry.