'Fail-safe' plan for prison transfers

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The Independent Online
TWO SENIOR Cabinet ministers will be required personally to sign all further orders for the transfer to Northern Ireland of prisoners convicted of terrorist offences under a new 'fail-safe mechanism' ordered by John Major. After reading the report by Derek Lewis, director-general of the Prison Service, on the controversial transfer of four IRA prisoners last Thursday, Mr Major has ordered an immediate change of procedure designed to ensure that the timing of any future transfers take account of the political climate at the time.

The swiftness with which Downing Street has acted is designed to reinforce his insistent message to loyalists that there had been no secret deal with the IRA before the republicans' peace declaration last Wednesday.

With six further prisoners, including three convicted of terrorist offences, currently awaiting transfer, Mr Major has ordered the Prison Service to ensure that the timing of all relevant transfers must be ratified by both Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Whitehall stressed yesterday that while Mr Howard had approved in June the original list he had only done so with deep reluctance and after exhaustive examination of the legal issues involved. There was little effort yesterday to disguise government annoyance with Mr Lewis' conduct of the affair. However, there was no sign last night that he will either resign or be dismissed.

But in a letter in today's Independent, five prominent solicitors, including Michael McColgan, who represented one of the prisoners, say Mr Lewis should not be scapegoated for 'carrying out government policy'.

Letter, page 11