Prisoners freed to push for `Yes' vote

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The Independent Online
FOUR IRA prisoners have been freed from the Maze Prison so they can push for a "Yes" vote for the Good Friday peace agreement at Sinn Fein's reconvened ard fheis (conference) today.

In an unprecedented move, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, yesterday authorised the temporary release of Patrick Wilson, the IRA's commanding officer in the prison, and three other inmates.

IRA leaders go into their conference fully confident of securing an endorsement of the agreement and the landmark decision to enter a Northern Ireland Assembly.

The latter could have been as deeply contentious as the move to take seats in the Dail, the Irish parliament, which split the party in 1986.

But the IRA's recent vote allowing members to take part in a Northern assembly eased pressure on the party leaders, even if it meant conceding publicly that many were members of both Sinn Fein and the IRA. Previously IRA orders barred recognition of any "partitionist" Northern assembly.

Leaking this decision well ahead of today's debate gave added authority and momentum to Sinn Fein's subsequent ard chomhairle (executive) recommendation for a "Yes" vote in the North and South referendums.

Senior Sinn Fein figures have been careful to accommodate those with reservations about amending the Irish constitutional claim over the territory of Northern Ireland. Amid predictions of 90 per cent support in the party, the priority has been to minimise defections to hard-line groups supporting continued violence.

Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin said endorsing the Yes votes was still consistent with "our absolute rejection of partition, of the Unionist veto and of British rule".

Executive member Martin McGuinness said there were only "a tiny number of discordant voices". He was "supremely confident" of united backing for the agreement. That vote requires a simple majority, but two-thirds support is needed to endorse taking seats in the assembly.

The first round of deliberation three weeks ago showed that influential figures favoured participation in cross-border bodies, with mainly younger southern voices against. Key pro-leadership speakers then included veteran former IRA chief-of-staff Joe Cahill and Martin Meehan.