Freed IRA leader may be crucial to peace process

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The IRA's long-time commanding officer in the Maze prison yesterday became the 308th prisoner set free under the early release provisions of the Good Friday agreement.

The IRA's long-time commanding officer in the Maze prison yesterday became the 308th prisoner set free under the early release provisions of the Good Friday agreement.

Padraic Wilson, a Belfast man who had served eight years of a 24-year jail sentence for having a bomb, is regarded as an important figure in the republican movement and is expected to play a leading role in republican politics.

Despite much media speculation, however, it has emerged that he is not the interlocutor appointed by the IRA to liaise with Canadian General John de Chastelain on arms decommissioning. The General has already met the IRA representative, when Mr Wilson was still behind bars.

Both the IRA and loyalist groups have benefited from the early-release scheme, which is expected to leave the jails virtually empty of paramilitary prisoners by the middle of next year.

Mr Wilson intrigued everyone when, during an interview with the Financial Times, he indicated that the IRA might at some stage think of decommissioning its weaponry.

This created an apparently unwelcome flurry in Sinn Fein and IRA ranks at the time, since he had gone further than any other republican figure on disarmament.

Although there is talk that he may become involved in de-commissioning discussions at a later date, he refused to answer questions on the issue yesterday when he left the Maze to be greeted by his children and by Sinn Fein assembly member Gerry Kelly.

Mr Kelly said of him: "I hope he will take some time off before he takes up a position in the peace process again.

"I welcome him as a long-term friend and comrade and also to say his leadership has been appreciated both inside and outside. He was a good leader in good times and bad."

Mr Wilson commented: "The very fact that I am here today, a considerable number of years before the British Government and others wanted me to be out, is entirely down to the republican leadership. It has been a very important period for us and a very interesting period."

Although the political focus at the moment is on the new cross-party Stormon executive, decommissioning is due to raise its troublesome head in the new year when First Minister David Trimble is to report back to his party on the arms issue. The Irish President, Mary McAleese, told the Dublin parliament yesterday that the current generation was the first for centuries to have an opportunity for lasting peace in Northern Ireland. She declared: "Peace is no longer a rumour, it is real."

Mrs McAleese, who is from Belfast, added: "We are mindful of the hurt caused to so many, hurts which may never heal. But we take heart from the forgiveness, the generosity, the love and compassion, the willingness to take risks, even in the absence of trust, of so many ordinary people, who were and are the very soul of this phenomenon we call the peace process."

Among the audience in the public gallery of the Dail chamber for the address was the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams. Mr Adams later said he was not satisfied with the response of the British Government to the disclosure that a car he used was bugged during peace negotiations.

He said: "I have spoken to Mr Blair and to Mr Mandelson on this issue and I have written to Mr Blair. I have to say that I am not satisfied with the response from the British."