Plea for release of IRA 'top 10'

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TEN IRA men who have been in jail in mainland Britain for 20 years are top of Sinn Fein's list of prisoners they want released as a condition of the peace process.

The issue of terrorist prisoners moved up Sinn Fein's agenda last week with the release of Private Lee Clegg just three years into a life sentence for the murder of joyrider Karen Reilly.

Heading the Sinn Fein "wishlist" are 10 men who have served more that 20 years with no indication of a release date - some without even a review of their sentence.

They include the four members of the Balcombe Street siege gang - Eddie Butler, Hugh Doherty, Harry Duggan and Joe O'Connell. The gang members, all of whom are from the Irish Republic, were each charged with 25 terrorist offences associated with a succession of bombings and shootings.

Also on the list are Brendan Dowd, Noel Gibson, Sean Kinsella, Stephen Nordone and Paul Norney, the members of an active service unit who were jailed in 1976 after being caught in a Liverpool flat with gelignite, guns and a list of Cabinet ministers' addresses. The 10th prisoner on the list is Vincent Donnelly, jailed in 1977 for shooting a policeman.

Republicans say the prisoners' treatment is in stark contrast to that of Clegg, who was allowed to move to Wakefield Prison to be near his family. A total of 34 republicans are held in mainland Britain.

Last week after rioting in Belfast following the announcement of Clegg's release, republican campaigners warned that any delays to the freeing of prisoners could do irreparable damage to the peace process.There is also concern that as the Orange Order marching season gets under way this weekend, the issue of prisoners could lead to further tensions between the Protestant and Catholic communities.

"I think the peace process could break down over this issue," said Mairead Ui Adhmaill of Saoirse ("Freedom"), a pressure group established within weeks of the IRA cease fire.

Mrs Ui Adhmaill, whose husband Feilim was jailed last year for conspiracy to cause explosions, warned: "It's important that the prisoners get out to copper-fasten the peace."

A delegation of fringe loyalist parties also urged Michael Ancram, a Northern Ireland minister, last week to move on the issue. Like their republican counterparts, the groups warned that without movement soon on the 350 loyalists and 600 nationalists, there was a real risk that the peace process would run into the sand.

Billy Hutchinson, a licensed prisoner who led the Progressive Unionist Party's delegation this week, said: "Over 320 of us life sentence prisoners, both republican and loyalist, have been allowed out on licence since 1987. Not one has returned for having a weapon or even being near a weapon."

Saoirse points out that in other conflicts that have been settled around the world, prisoners have emerged from behind bars quickly.

"People recognise that this is one of the easier problems to solve," said Mrs Ui Adhmaill. "But if they are unwilling to engage in an easy question like this, you can't possibly have any trust in them."