Leak reveals pressure by Kennedy

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A CONFIDENTIAL government document shows Tony Blair and Jack Straw discussed the question of releasing Roisin McAliskey with Irish-American politicians last month.

According to an official account of the meeting which has surfaced in Belfast, Mr Straw told them he "was looking carefully at the case of Roisin McAliskey to see if she was psychologically fit to be transferred to Germany. In general, we took enormous care to ensure fair and just decisions in such cases".

Mr Blair added that "we had done what we could on prisoners."

The exchange followed the raising of prisoners' issues by Congressman Joe Kennedy who, according to the document, "called for confidence-building measures, eg over prisoners and British military presence, to be continued".

The exchanges took place at a breakfast in Washington on 5 February when Mr Blair and Mr Straw met Senator Edward Kennedy and eight other Irish-Americans. The account is given in a report from John Holmes, the Prime Minister's principal private secretary, to the Northern Ireland Office.

In a comment on the meeting Mr Holmes added: "This was a notably successful occasion. The already benevolent mood of those present towards us was further strengthened by the open approach of the Prime Minister."

The Irish-American input into the issue may well stir Unionist suspicions that the Government has reacted to political pressures from across the Atlantic and elsewhere.

It will not however alter the warm welcome her release has heralded on the nationalist side, where the threat of extradition was regarded as an impediment to the peace process and a blot on the Government's human rights record.

The release will be seen by most observers in the context of the peace process, within which republicans and nationalists have been urging the Government to move on the issue of prisoners in general, and on McAliskey in particular.

The political campaign for her release was backed by the republicans and the Irish government also threw its weight behind her fight.

David Andrews, the Irish foreign minister, has raised the case with Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on a number of occasions, including a session of the Anglo-Irish inter-governmental conference last week when the two ministers had "a full discussion of its implications".

In a statement last night, Mr Andrews said the move was in the "wider interest of peace".

The Government has taken a markedly more pragmatic attitude towards republican prisoners than Michael Howard, the last Conservative home secretary. Recognising that the issue has always been a political issue on both sides, there has been a considerable easing of the terms under which convicted terrorists have been held.