A hearing will decide today whether the four should serve longer terms in prison, after the Home Secretary obtained an interim order setting aside the decision by the Northern Ireland Sentence Review Commission to allow the prisoners' immediate release under the Good Friday Agreement.
The unprecedented move is the first attempt by the Government to slow down the early release of IRA prisoners, and risks provoking an angry reaction from the republican movement at a time when the peace process hangs in the balance.
Downing Street denied the move was in response to the public outcry over the disclosure that members of an IRA sniper team, jailed last week for a total of 600 years, could be released within 16 months.
The commission yesterday approved the immediate release of three prisoners - Paul Kavanagh, Thomas Quigley, and Gerard McDonnell, who were jailed for life for bombing campaigns on the mainland but transferred to serve their sentences in Northern Ireland. The commission's decision would have brought forward the release date of Magee.
Judges recommended that two of them, Magee and Thomas Quigley, should each serve not less than 35 years in prison. In 1986 Magee, then aged 35, was given eight life sentences for his part in the Brighton hotel bombing of the Thatcher cabinet.
He was found guilty of planting the time-delay device which exploded at the Grand Hotel during the 1984 Conservative conference, killing five people. The judge told him: "You intended to wipe out a large part of the Government and very nearly did. I am satisfied that you enjoy terrorism."
Magee is regarded as an IRA folk hero for coming close to killing Margaret Thatcher, who was then at the top of the IRA's assassination list. Kavanagh and Quigley were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1985 on three counts of murder and possession of explosives.
McDonnell, then 35, was sentenced to life imprisonment after being tried with Magee. He was convicted of conspiring to cause a series of explosions at seaside resorts.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said the Home Secretary had intervened as part of the "due process" of the law, and it had nothing to do with public anger over the early release of IRA prisoners.
But the policy has been one of the most controversial aspects of the peace process, and victims' families pointed out that IRA men were being released before any weapons were surrendered under the Good Friday Agreement.
William Hague, the Tory leader, has called for the releases to be suspended until the IRA begins decommissioning its weapons, an approach rejected by Tony Blair.
Mr Straw sought the judicial review on the grounds that the commission had been wrong to assess the men's sentences as if they had been jailed in the Province. A different tariff operates for prisoners sentenced on mainland Britain under the Northern Ireland Sentences Act 1998. A Home Office spokesman said: "The Government is committed to meeting our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. The Government thinks that it is important to clarify the application of the law as it applies to prisoners transferred from England and Wales to Northern Ireland."
The Government said that if circumstances permitted, all the qualifying prisoners would be released under the terms of the Agreement by July 2000. That now depends on the peace process holding together, and intensive efforts are being made to prevent it collapsing before the Easter deadline.
Mr Blair and Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, are expected to discuss a joint initiative to secure the peace process when they meet tonight at the European summit in Berlin. The two leaders are planning jointly to meet the party leaders in Northern Ireland to force through a final agreement, which will enable Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to join the executive of the power-sharing Assembly in Northern Ireland.
David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister, is refusing to set up the executive until decommissioning begins but the two governments have made clear there can be no preconditions and they will be putting pressure on both Mr Adams and Mr Trimble to give ground to avoid the peace process breaking down.
Sinn Fein last night reacted angrily to the development, accusing Mr Straw of interfering with the Agreement and of having double standards.
Gerry Kelly, party spokesman, said: "His behaviour is unacceptable. Sinn Fein believes that the decision of the review board to release the four men is the right one. Mr Straw should withdraw any procedures to change that decision."Reuse content