Mayhew rushes in Bill to free Ulster prisoners

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Indy Politics
A total of 88 terrorist republican and loyalist prisoners could be released by Christmas under an emergency Bill by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, to help resolve the impasse over the peace process.

The Northern Ireland (Remission of Sentences) Bill will be rushed through both Houses of Parliament within the next fortnight, with cross-party backing.

Sir Patrick said yesterday it could lead to a further 88 prisoners in Northern Ireland jails being released next year, bringing the total gaining early remission to about 470.

The Northern Ireland Secretary denied the timing was connected with the peace process, but he admitted the release of prisoners was a "potent factor".

The releases were foreshadowed in a speech by Sir Patrick on 25 August as a bonus from the cessation of violence by both sides. However, it is clear the Bill is a response to the demands by both the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries to deal with the issue of prisoners as part of the peace process. It is part of a hectic round of talks to make progress before President Bill Clinton visits Britain and Ireland at the end of next month.

The measures, which are open to judicial review by prisoners, may not go far enough for Sinn Fein, which has been demanding a general release of IRA and loyalist paramilitaries. But it could help to kick-start the process, which is deadlocked over the demands for the IRA to decommission arms before joining all-party talks.

The release of prisoners - many wanted for serious acts of terrorism including killings - will cause unrest among Ulster Unionists. But the Government is hoping that the release of loyalist paramilitaries will dampen Unionist criticism.

Northern Ireland ministers regarded it as fortunate that the first releases will affect almost as many loyalist prisoners as IRA supporters. It does not affect IRA prisoners in British jails, who are subject to the Home Office probation rules.

The measure will reverse legislation enacted in 1989 under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in the face of an upsurge in terrorist violence. That legislation reduced remission from one-half to one-third of sentence for prisoners serving fixed term sentences in Northern Ireland.

The new Bill will allow all prisoners in Northern Ireland serving fixed term sentences to be released after serving half of their sentence. They will then be required to remain under licence for two-thirds of their sentence.

Release on licence means they may be recalled if it is decided that they present a risk to others or are likely to commit further offences.

Sir Patrick denied the Bill was paving the way for a general amnesty for IRA and loyalist terrorist prisoners. "It is nothing to do with an amnesty. These are not political prisoners and this is not an executive release. We have always said that people convicted with these offences must serve their sentences according to the law."