Chief Political Correspondent
The early release of IRA and loyalist paramilitary prisoners could be the price for progress on the decommissioning of arms, according to senior Dublin sources.
The release of prisoners is at the top of Sinn Fein's list of demands and is likely to be raised by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams when he meets Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in Washington.
The early release of prisoners is a controversial issue, which is certain to raise Tory Unionist hackles, but the Government will be under pressure from Dublin to drop its opposition to the move.
Irish sources believe the demands in both Nationalist and Loyalist communities for the early release of paramilitary prisoners will be intensified if, as expected, the review of the life sentence on Pte Lee Clegg, the British soldier jailed for killing a joyrider, leads to his release next month.
The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, is strongly opposed to early release, and Sir Patrick is reluctant. The Irish government, which has allowed the release of many of its paramilitary prisoners, believes there can be no amnesty, but the release could be considered on a case-by-case basis.
One option is to allow early parole of prisoners on the grounds that the peace process means they are unlikely to commit further offences - although IRA members may not wish to accept parole terms from the British Government.
In a symbolic step last night, leaders of the Ulster Unionist Party and the nationalist SDLP met John Major at Downing Street to discuss fears that the peace process could lead to job losses in Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister assured the two parties, led by James Molyneaux and John Hume, that the privatisation of the water industry in Northern Ireland would not happen during the lifetime of this Parliament.Reuse content