Christmas leave plan for IRA prisoners

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The Government is under pressure to give Christmas leave to some IRA prisoners, including the ``Brighton bomber'', Patrick Magee, who were transferred from the mainland to Ulster.

Following the historic contacts with Sinn Fein, the Government is expected to sanction more releases of IRA prisoners from Ulster jails than ever before this Christmas as a goodwill gesture to maintain peace in the Province.

But ministers have confirmed that prisoners transferred from the mainland will still be subject to the stricter British prison regime, and will not be eligible for Christmas release, which is available to fellow prisoners in Ulster jails.

Ministers are facing renewed pressure to end that anomaly. The Ulster Unionist MP David Trimble called for the regimes on the mainland and in Ulster to be made equal. ``It's a mess. On humanitarian grounds, there is a strong case for transfers,'' he said.

"The reason why there has been a problem over transfers is because the prison regimes are different. At Christmas, there will be even more generous leave granted than before.''

The transfer of the IRA prisoners caused an uproar at the start of September. But the prospect of the four prisoners being treated differently in the same prisons in Ulster over Christmas is certain to be high on the Sinn Fein-IRA list for the exploratory talks that are to start soon with British officials.

The stricter British regime will apply to the four IRA prisoners whose transfer to Belfast in September, within days of the ceasefire, caused an uproar among Ulster Unionists, who suspected a deal had been done between the Government and the IRA.

The Prison Service agency said there had been no further transfers. The furore arose after it was announced that four men, including Magee, 43, given eight life sentences for his key role in the attempted murder of Margaret Thatcher and the Cabinet in 1984, had been sent to the Maze prison in Northern Ireland.

The move was condemned by MPs as grossly insensitive. The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, gave broad approval for the transfers, but ministers were furious about the actual timing.

Mr Howard intervened to ensure that he was informed about the detailed timing of any further transfers by Derek Lewis, director-general of the Prison Service.

The Prison Service was unable to say when any further transfers would take place, but it is believed Mr Howard has made clear he wants no more for the moment.

Mr Howard has denied that Britain has plans to allow the early release of IRA prisoners, and has ruled out any amnesty, but the easing of the rules governing prisoners who have beentransferred to Ulster would be a compromise.

The release of IRA prisoners in Ireland was halted when a postal worker was shot dead by an IRA team in Newry, County Down. Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, the Irish justice minister, said the Irish government would proceed with releases when it was assured therewas no threat to the community.