IRA prisoners will leave Britain next month

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The Independent Online
Seven IRA prisoners held in British jails are to be moved to the Irish Republic in a move which will please Sinn Fein but may increase Unionist disillusionment with the peace process. Our Ireland correspondent says the development follows yesterday's release on Christmas leave of Patrick Magee, serving life for the Brighton bombing

It is understood the transfer of the seven republicans has been approved and will take place in the new year. It is the latest in a series of transfers to both Northern Ireland and the Republic. It is believed that all those wishing to transfer to Northern Ireland will by then have had their requests granted.

Even before the news of the latest transfers became known, loyalist representatives were warning of "severe alienation" among the Protestant population which they said could threaten both the talks process and the loyalist ceasefire. Meetings between the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, and two key loyalist parties appeared to have had little immediate effect in soothing ruffled feathers and allaying their concerns.

Rather, a loyalist prisoner being released from the Maze on Christmas parole announced that Ulster Defence Association (UDA) inmates were reviewing their support for the "faltering" peace process. Billy Adams, complained of "appeasement and constant concessions to Sinn Fein / IRA".

He added: "We have witnessed government concessions to republicans on all fronts, be it a reduction in security levels or the erosion of our political and cultural identity. Where is the parity of esteem for loyalist prisoners?"

He was speaking as around 160 prisoners, including loyalists, republicans and others, were released over Christmas for 10 days, a longer period than usual. Among those released was Patrick Magee, who was jailed for life for the Brighton bomb attack which in 1984 killed five people at the Conservative Party conference and which narrowly missed assassinating Margaret Thatcher. He is among those who have already been transferred from England to Northern Ireland.

Republicans are by no means delighted with the pace of movement on the prison issue. They are pressing for the early release of all paramilitary prisoners, describing this as a confidence-building measure needed to underpin the IRA ceasefire. They have also criticised Dublin for assuring London that transferred prisoners will continue to face their full sentences.

Loyalists are aggrieved, however, that in terms of prison concessions they regard republicans as being well ahead. Both sides are benefiting from the Christmas parole while both also qualify for the increased remission which was announced in 1995. But republicans have also benefited from early releases from prisons in the Irish Republic, as well as transfers of IRA prisoners from prisons in Britain to Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

There are no loyalist paramilitants held in prison in the Republic; if there were, Dublin would almost certainly agree to their speedy release. Similarly, there are no loyalists left in British jails who qualify for transfer to Northern Ireland. This means that only republicans are benefiting from the recent relaxation in prison policy.

While loyalists do not necessarily disapprove of the transfers and releases in the Republic, they feel their prisoners are missing out. The feeling of alienation is compounded by events in the political arena such as the recent meeting in Downing Street between Tony Blair and the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams. Such developments are regarded as clear advances for republicans and therefore as unhelpful to the general loyalist cause.

The authorities will most immediately be concerned that the loyalist unrest might result in an outbreak of violence which could cost lives. Already this year loyalist violence has resulted in 11 deaths, compared to three killings by the IRA, and there is an ever-present danger that a rise in tension might produce a resort to the gun by either mainstream loyalist paramilitants or breakaway elements.

The other question is whether the Ulster Democratic party and the Progressive Unionists, the two political groupings which represent the main paramilitary groups, will attend the multi-party talks when they resume at Stormont on 12 January.

Ms Mowlam said yesterday that she was concerned at the announcement that UDA prisoners would review their attitude to their ceasefire. In a Christmas message, however, she declared: "I am confident that an agreement can be reached against a background of peace on both sides."

The UDP leader, Gary McMichael, who met Ms Mowlam yesterday, said afterwards: "There is a growing feeling within Unionism and loyalism that the Government is valuing the concerns of nationalism above those of loyalism and Unionism. There is a need for rapid movement on Mo Mowlam's part to try and retrieve this situation."