Hundreds of terrorists to be freed early

Mayhew bids to revive peace process
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The Independent Online


The Government will today try to breathe new life into the flagging Irish peace process by promising early release of hundreds of paramilitary prisoners and the overhaul of anti-terrorist legislation.

In a speech in Belfast today, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, will also announce an Autumn White Paper on the future of policing and the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Ministers hope that the initiatives will help stem a rising tide of Irish nationalist complaints that alleged government inertia could put the process at risk on the eve of the anniversary of the IRA ceasefire. But the immediate response in nationalist circles was hostile.

The centrepiece of a speech to be delivered this morning will be a plan to increase prisoners' remission for good behaviour from one third to one half of sentences. The authorities say this will mean early release for 100 republican and loyalist terrorists in the first year.

Sir Patrick is expected to announce an independent review of the Emergency Provisions Act, which applies only in Northern Ireland, and the UK-wide Prevention of Terrorism Act. Both have to be renewed annually by the House of Commons, but the EPA would have to be replaced next year after being renewed annually for its maximum of five years.

Until now, the government has said a review would have to wait, but Sir Patrick is understood to believe that bringing it forward will help increase the pressure on the IRA to begin handing in its arms.

Sir Patrick also will hold out the prospect of "new structures" designed to restore confidence among the Catholic population in the traditionally Protestant-dominated police force, the RUC. A White Paper outlining the Government's plans, in the context of redirecting the heavily-armed force to deal with non-terrorist crime, will be published in October.

Sinn Fein will be studying the speech closely, but it is already plain that unless more government moves are on the way, the republican response will be negative and angry. Sinn Fein's recent demands have concentrated on ending the deadlock on arms decommissioning, and on making rapid progress towards all-party talks.

A Sinn Fein spokesperson, Councillor Una Gillespie, said of the remission move: "This is insulting and derisory. It is never going to have any significant impact on the peace process, never mind on the number of political prisoners who are in jail, and under these arrangements will be in jail, until the year 2000."

Sir Patrick is expected to say he intends to bring legislation to the next session of parliament to reverse the cut in remission for terrorist offences from a half to a third six years ago.

The Northern Ireland Office estimates that around 400 terrorist prisoners could be released early over five years - 100 in the first year, equally split between republicans and loyalists, and 70-80 a year over the next four years.

In his speech, Sir Patrick makes it clear that such early releases are intended to give the paramilitaries an incentive to refrain from a return to violence, because it is obvious that the House of Commons would only approve the measure if the peace continued.

Early releases would be conditional on continuing good behaviour.

The incentives in Sir Patrick's speech are designed to balance the government's insistence that the IRA must start handing in its arms before Sinn Fein, its political wing, is allowed to take part in full talks about the future of Northern Ireland.

In recent months, the Irish government has expressed semi-public dismay at the British refusal to concede a separate set of "parallel" talks on the decommissioning of arms. But sources close to Sir Patrick said yesterday:

"There is now an understanding that the British government will not move off decommissioning - so there is an equilibrium between the two governments."