IRA prisoners given softer jail regime

Restrictions on 'most dangerous' 13 eased in run-up to peace talks
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The 13 most dangerous IRA prisoners held in Britain have been moved out of their top- security units in the run-up to the Northern Ireland peace talks, it was revealed yesterday.

The prisoners are to enjoy less restrictive regimes after having their security status downgraded. The move was condemned by Unionists who accused the Government of being weak on terrorism. Sinn Fein gave the news a guarded welcome.

The men include the six terrorists jailed for 35 years each in July for attempting to bring chaos to the South-east by blowing up electricity sub- stations. This included senior IRA members Gerard Hanratty, 38, and John Crawley, a 40-year-old former US Marine, who were released from prison terms during the last ceasefire.

The move means that there will no longer be any IRA prisoners, either charged or convicted, held in the three Special Secure Units at Belmarsh in south-east London, Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire and Full Sutton in York.

Instead the men have been placed in the high-security wings of the three jails plus prisons at Frankland, near Durham, Long Lartin, Worcestershire, and Wakefield, West Yorkshire. The special unit at Full Sutton is now to be "mothballed".

The decision to downgrade their security category from exceptional risk Category A to high risk Category A follows information from MI5 and the police that the risk of escape had decreased, the Prison Service said yesterday. One other inmate, who has no terrorism links, has also been moved.

The men will now be allowed greater freedom to mix with other inmates and use general facilities and can have "open visits" with relatives in which they will be able to touch one another. All visitors to the secure units, which still hold about 20 inmates, are prevented from contact with prisoners by a glass screen. There are 27 IRA members in English jails.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, and Joyce Quin, the Prisons Minister, agreed to the decision to move the IRA men. Coming four weeks before the start of talks on the Province's future at which Sinn Fein is expected to be represented for the first time, they are seen as a concession to nationalists who have long criticised the conditions in which IRA members are kept.

John Taylor, the deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists, accused ministers of acting "recklessly" and of ignoring police advice in the face of a continuing terrorist threat. "It seems to me that the police on both sides of the border remain concerned that there will be a return to IRA violence," he said.

Ian Paisley Jnr, the Democratic Unionist Party's justice spokesman, claimed the Government was preparing public opinion for an early release programme for terrorist prisoners. "This status downgrade will ... weaken the structure and control exercised over some of the most dangerous terrorist criminals in Europe," he said.

Sinn Fein said it will continue to press for the transfer and release of all prisoners.