The Home Office confirmed that a number of applications for transfers would shortly be granted. Fifty applications have been made, fewer than half of them from men serving sentences for IRA-related offences.
Sir John Wheeler, the Northern Ireland security minister, denied the move had any wider significance. He said it was meant to send 'absolutely no signal at all' to republicans.
Sir John said the move would affect only 'a small handful' of prisoners, describing it as a sensible proposition to enable prisoners to keep in touch with families. He said it would affect at most 30 men.
Sinn Fein has promised its definitive response to the Downing Street declaration within weeks, so the suspicion was raised that yesterday's move might represent some sort of gesture to republicans.
For years Sinn Fein has campaigned for prisoners held in Britain to serve their sentences in Northern Ireland. In 1992 the Home Office softened its opposition and since then there have been four permanent and 13 temporary transfers.
However, Sinn Fein regards the prison regime as being heavily influenced by political considerations and may well conclude the authorities are making a tactical concession.Reuse content