Derek Lewis, the director-general of the Prison Service, yesterday defended his decision to transfer four republican prisoners, including the leading Brighton bomber, to jail in Northern Ireland. However, a row has broken out over whether Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and other ministers knew the timing of the move. Westminster sources confirmed last night that Mr Howard approved their transfer in June.
An investigation has been ordered by John Major, who was said to be 'livid' about the decision. A report was expected to be handed to the Prime Minister last night.
If any minister is found to have been aware of the timing, but did nothing to prevent it, they would expect to come under pressure to resign.
The furore arose after it was announced that four men, including Patrick Magee, 43, who was given eight life sentences for his key role in the attempted murder of Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet in bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984, had been sent to the Maze prison in Northern Ireland on Thursday. The decision was quickly condemned as grossly insensitive and an action that could heighten loyalist fears that a deal had been hatched.
Despite the protests and calls for the moves to be postponed, the Prison Service confirmed yesterday that it would continue to transfer Irish prisoners.
There are about 40 Irish terrorists in jails in England and Wales and more than half have made applications to be transferred back to Northern Ireland. It is known that three convicted terrorists who had applications approved in June are still waiting to return. Other successful applicants were notified in July, but the Prison Service is refusing to give details.
Mr Lewis said ministers from the Home Office and Northern Ireland Office had approved a list of prisoners in June. He had only been told last week by his officials about the date of the latest transfer. He said officials from other services were also aware of the date. It is unclear whether ministerial advisers were informed. A Prison Service spokesman said: 'Whether ministers knew is the core question which the inquiry will want to answer.'
Earlier, Mr Lewis told BBC Radio that it would have been 'relatively easy' to have stopped the transfers. Asked why the transfers were not delayed, he said: 'Simply because this was a continuation of a well-publicised transfer programme under well-established rules that clearly had absolutely nothing to do with the events which took place on Wednesday.'
Lady Olga Maitland, secretary of the Tory backbench committee on Northern Ireland, said she was particularly concerned that civil servants agreed to the final transfer date last Friday, when rumours of a pending IRA ceasefire were already circulating. 'It was confusing a normal Home Office transfer into an arena they never intended,' she said.
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