Field backs Tories over slower Ulster prisoner releases

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THE FORMER Labour minister Frank Field is backing Tory calls for prisoner releases in Northern Ireland to slowed down in protest at punishment beatings by paramilitary groups.

Mr Field, who resigned from Tony Blair's government in July last year, is supporting a call by Harry Barnes, a Labour backbench peace campaigner, for a meeting at Downing Street to air their objections before a Tory- led debate in the Commons on Wednesday.

The two MPs have tabled a Commons motion saying the release of IRA and loyalist paramilitary prisoners should be "slowed up as a political sanction against a cynically and centrally organised regime of increasingly brutal beatings, shootings, murder, exiling and intimidation."

On the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme yesterday, William Hague, the Tory leader, repeated his call for the release scheme to be suspended. He said there were not just beatings, but that people were being maimed, some with their legs "blown off".

Mr Blair has resisted Tory calls for prisoner releases to be halted, but Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, is expected during the debate to warn the terrorists that she could intervene in the release scheme, which is part of the peace process, if there are any deaths from their acts of intimidation.

Ms Mowlam also defended the Northern Ireland Office minister Adam Ingram, who is expected to meet the families of eight IRA men shot dead by the SAS.

The minister has been criticised by unionists and victims' groups angered by his plan to meet the relatives of members of the IRA's East Tyrone brigade killed in a covert operation in Loughgall, Co Armagh, in May 1987.

The men had been carrying a 200lb bomb in a digger which was intended for the town's police station.

Ms Mowlam said Mr Ingram was not meeting anybody who had not been seen already by the Victims Commission, established under the Good Friday Agreement.

"Just because he sees groups does not mean he endorses their position.

"Adam Ingram is in a very hard position and is working very hard with victims' groups to address their needs. He has set up a victims' support unit, he has educational bursaries in place, he is meeting victims' groups," Ms Mowlam said.

Families Against Intimidation and Terror, a group of families who have been caught up in the violence, estimate that 160 acts of terrorism have already taken place this year by gangs that are seeking to maintain control over their communities.