Howard opens rift with Irish over prisoners

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The Independent Online
Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, yesterday caused a fresh rift with the Dublin government by refusing to allow two republican terrorist prisoners held in a British jail to be transferred to Northern Ireland

The Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, was annoyed by the decision, which was seen in Dublin as a further setback tonegotiations to break the impasse over the IRA's refusal to decommission its weapons.

Mr Howard confirmed he had refused the transfer for Patrick Kelly, 43, and Michael O'Brien, 42, from Whitemore prison in Cambridgeshire. The move came as John Major continued his efforts to break the impasse in separate talks with John Hume, the SDLP leader, and the Rev Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist leader.

Underlining its dismay at Mr Howard's decision, the Irish government said it would seek to transfer the two prisoners to the Republic when a new Act ratifying the Council of Europe Convention on the transfer of prisoners comes into force on 1 November.

Kelly was sentenced at the Old Bailey in October 1993 to 25 years for attempted murder and conspiracy to cause explosions. O'Brien was sentenced to18 years in March 1993 on two counts of attempted murder.

Mr Hume has been seeking ways around the impasse by revising the idea of the proposed international commission to handle the issue of decommissioning arms. The private talks with Mr Major are believed to have covered changes to the proposed terms of references, to meet republican anxieties.

The SDLP leader was optimistic about "new ideas" after an hour of talks with Mr Major. Later the Prime Minister met Mr Paisley for talks lasting a further 90 minutes in Downing Street. Mr Paisley also emerged apparently satisfied and saying there would no compromise on the decommissioning issue.

Westminster sources sounded a sceptical note. "The Prime Minister has met David Trimble [the Ulster Unionist leader], John Bruton, John Hume and Ian Paisley, and they have all said the talks were encouraging. He must be a magician, or one must wonder what he is saying to them all."

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