Irish government agrees to drop emergency powers

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The Irish government's conviction that the paramilitaries' ceasefires are increasingly secure was underlined yesterday, with the announcement that emergency powers are being dropped for the first time in 56 years.

Dublin's move is largely symbolic, as these powers had little impact on daily life. But, coming after last Friday's early release of five more IRA prisoners in the Republic, it highlights the different speeds of normalisation in the peace process on either side of the Irish border. Only 42 IRA prisoners remain in jails in the South.

Sinn Fein this week indicated that it sees little point in continuing exploratory talks with Northern Ireland Office civil servants beyond the two meetings scheduled this week. The talks have yet to involve contact between Sinn Fein and British government ministers.

The decision to lift the state of emergency comes three weeks before the first Sinn Fein Ard Fheis (national conference) since the IRA ceasefire. The move was first signalled by Dublin ministers last autumn, before the collapse of Albert Reynolds' FiannaFail-Labour coalition.

The emergency legislation removed last night by the Dail had been on the statute books for 56 years. It was renewed in 1976 to combat a growing paramilitary threat in the South, after the British Ambassador to Dublin, Christopher Ewart- Biggs, and an embassy employee were blown up by an IRA land mine, detonated under their car in July 1976.

The emergency powers uncluded giving Irish soldiers powers of search and arrest.

Pressure from Garda commanders, concerned about organised crime and drugs gangs, has led to another piece of emergency legislation, the 1939 Offences Against the State Act (OAS), being retained. Its extensive use by the Garda to detain suspects in criminal investigations has drawn criticism from civil liberties groups.

That Act has also been used to bring defendants accused of serious criminal offences before the non-jury Special Criminal Court, formerly used primarily for paramilitary cases. The move reflected fears that juries were being intimidated into returning not guilty verdits.