Home Office delayed IRA parole boards

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

The Government has been found guilty of "flouting" the human rights of IRA terrorists for the second time in two days - but yesterday it was a British court which made the judgment.

In a landmark decision, based upon the European Convention on Human Rights, the High Court found Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, had "unreasonably and unlawfully" delayed the parole hearings for five of the country's longest serving IRA prisoners. He had therefore, possibly, delayed their release.

Whitehall said last night that the delays were not political and affected all 700 discretionary lifer prisoners. But the judgment - coming straight after the European Court in Strasbourg condemned the SAS killing of three unarmed IRA terrorists in Gibraltar - will be seen as another hiccup in the faltering peace process.

Yesterday's ruling, in the cases of men who were involved in the IRA's devastating bombing campaign of the 1970s, represents a major embarrassment for the Government. It cannot - as it did with Wednesday's Gibraltar ruling - dismiss it as a nonsensical verdict of a bunch of European judges.

While maintaining it was rejecting the European judgment, the Government last night looked increasingly likely to have to pay pounds 39,000 legal costs to the families of the dead Gibraltar terrorists.

During his two years as Home Secretary Mr Howard has fallen foul of the law - both European and domestic - at least eight times. More cases are pending. Last night he was considering an appeal.

The case centred upon the way the Home Office has been dealing with lifers who have completed their tariffs - the sentences judges recommend should be served. The five had completed their 20 year terms in July and should at that time have been referred to the Parole Board so that it could consider whether they still posed a danger to the public - the only grounds on which they could still legally be held.

But Home Office practice was to refer cases after the tariff had expired, effectively delaying release for up to six months. Yesterday Mr Justice Dyson said that the practice was "manifestly unjust".

A ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in 1987 under Article 5 of the convention - protecting the liberty of the individual - effectively removed the Home Secretary's right to delay a parole hearing beyond a judge's recommended sentence. That ruling was incorporated into British law in the 1991 Criminal Justice Act.

Lawyers for the five had argued that in the light of the Ulster ceasefire and peace process, there was now overwhelming evidence that the men no longer posed a threat. Mr Justice Dyson said current policy "flouts the principles of the common law and the European Convention on Human Rights".

The five, Brendan Dowd, 47, once named as top terrorist organiser in Britain, Paul Norney, 37, the longest-serving Irish republican prisoner of all, Sean Kinsella, 48, Stephen Nordone, 39, and Noel Gibson, 42, were sentenced to a total of 16 life sentences at Manchester Crown Court in 1976 after they were found guilty of charges including conspiracy to murder and cause explosions, attempted murder and possessing arms and explosives.

Gravest rebuke yet, page 2