Pressure on IRA to lift exiles ban

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A CAMPAIGN to force the IRA to lift orders exiling people from Northern Ireland is being mounted in London, Belfast and Dublin to bolster the crisis-hit peace process.

Labour MPs and IRA dissidents are linking up to allow the return to the Province of the exiled men and their families as a goodwill gesture and confidence building measure in the run-up to the March 10 hand-over of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

"Public opinion helped to stop the punishment beatings. We hope we can do the same with exile," said one of the campaigners.

They are hoping for a public show of condemnation for the use of exile, including a possible rock concert in Belfast, with performers such as Bono, to welcome the return of exiled men from mainland Britain.

It is believed that hundreds have been forced to flee into exile from Northern Ireland by republican and loyalist paramilitaries since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, but nobody knows the true figures. Officially, the Government says around 1,385 people claim they were intimidated out of their homes between April and December last year, but it is not known how many were ordered to leave Ulster.

Many of those forced into exile are petty criminals or alleged drug dealers who have fallen foul of the paramilitaries covering their community. They are warned that they will be beaten or killed if they stay. "The IRA's attitude is that the Brits can have this problem on their doorstep," said one former IRA man. Sometimes entire families have to find homes in mainland cities such as Manchester, where the Maranatha religious organisation helps resettle people forced out of their own homes. There are cases of people arriving with no friends or connections in Manchester who have been warned not to talk to the police or press, or they will face another beating.

The Maranatha organisation says it had a group of 14 to deal with. One victim said: "Northern Ireland is like Chicago with Guinness - all Al Capone and the Mafia. Money drives the people, not politics."

Harry Barnes, the Labour MP and co-chairman of the New Dialogue group, which supports the peace process, is leading the campaign to end the exile of people from Northern Ireland. The Peace Train campaigners who protested for peace in the North and South of Ireland are expected to throw their weight behind the movement to end exile, and there are likely to be moves in the Irish Parliament.

Tony Blair will meet Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, on Friday in the margins of a Euro-summit to agree the next steps towards persuading the IRA to begin decommissioning, which is threatening to stall the hand- over of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr Blair, who met Gerry Adams last week at Downing Street, and Mr Ahern believe the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, has little room for manoeuvre unless the IRA is prepared to make a gesture by abandoning some of its weapons. Mr Trimble, the first minister in the Assembly, is under pressure from his party not to set up the Assembly executive with ministerial seats for Sinn Fein unless decommissioning has started.

The IRA leadership is also under pressure from dissidents who support the armed struggle. There are continuing unconfirmed rumours at Westminster about a break-away dissident group, calling itself Continuity IRA, threatening a 'spectacular' bomb attack on the mainland around 10 March to show that there will be no surrender of weapons. They are said to be more in tune with the thinking of IRA leaders than the so-called Real IRA blamed for the Omagh bombing.