IRA prisoners 'denied contact'

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Home Affairs Correspondent

The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, was yesterday accused of unlawfully denying IRA prisoners the right to proper contact with their families and lawyers - the third time in a week the Government's treatment of IRA terrorists has come under court scrutiny.

Following the attempted IRA breakout from Whitemoor top security jail, last September, the Prison Service introduced "closed visits" - prisoners divided from their family and lawyers by a glass screen - for all inmates deemed to pose an "exceptional risk".

Yesterday two IRA prisoners, Michael O'Brien, serving 18 years for attempted murder, and Liam O'Duibhuir, jailed for 30 years for conspiracy to cause explosions, claimed at a judicial review that the moves were unnecessary and breached their rights to unfettered access to a lawyer. Edward Fitzgerald QC, for the two men, further argued that the right to some form of physical contact with close family was the "irreducible minimum" any civilised society should provide for prisoners.

The case comes at a sensitive time for the Government, under pressure to break the impasse in the peace process. Last week, Mr Howard was condemned for unlawfully delaying the parole hearings of five of the country's longest serving IRA men - and therefore possibly their chances of freedom.

Yesterday Mr Fitzgerald said the Woodcock inquiry into the breakout at Whitemoor had identified "shambolic" security, but stringent security measures were now being enforced to prevent weapons and tools being smuggled to inmates. Visitors to the country's six special secure units had to undergo two separate body searches and X-ray screenings.That made the new "closed" regimes unnecessary and unjustifiable.

The Government is contesting the judicial review, which is expected to end today.