IRA men go free as judge blocks appeal

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THREE high-profile IRA prisoners were last night released from the Maze prison after a Belfast judge rejected a move by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to question and put back their release dates.

High Court judge Mr Justice Girvan ruled against Mr Straw's legal challenge, in which the Home Office had argued that the Sentence Review Commission, which sets release dates under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, had not taken due account of regulations in England and Wales. Unless the Home Office lodges an appeal, the decision will also mean that a fourth prisoner, the Brighton bomber Patrick Magee, will be freed in June.

Sinn Fein representatives were jubilant at the ruling. One of its assembly members, Alex Maskey, said: "The person who should hang his head in shame is Jack Straw."

The case centred on the sentencing commission's decisions about the four prisoners concerned who, although imprisoned in Northern Ireland,remained technically under the control of the Home Office.

Mr Justice Girvan said he found the commission's decision to be "totally reasoned and carefully formulated" and that it had not misunderstood its own role. He also said that the wisdom or fairness of the early release scheme was not a matter for the court and added: "History will be the ultimate judge."

Many observers had interpreted the Home Secretary's intervention as an embarrassing legal tangle in which a government department was seeking in court to question the decision of an official body set up under statute. There had been concern that the prisoners issue might flare up into a major complication in the already difficult political talks about the province under way in Belfast.

Mr Straw's decision to take the issue to court was denounced as "stupid and vindictive" by the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, who added: "There can be no sensible or reasonable explanation for a British Home Secretary taking action like this. It will cause deep anger."

Conservatives had claimedthe Government was in disarray. Lord Tebbit, who with his wife was badly injured in the 1984 Brighton bombing, described it as "the most extraordinary bungle". He said the move displayed "total incompetence".

The Irish government sought clarification of the reasons behind the move, which had come as a surprise to Dublin.

Those who fear that opinion within the republican movement is in a fragile state appeared worried that the Home Secretary's actions were an attempt at political leverage as the talks intensify.

In Castlewellan, Co Down, a Catholic man was injured when a grenade exploded at a scrapyard. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the loyalist Orange Volunteers.