Ulster exclusion orders may be dropped

Troops halt day patrols in Newry, once one of Ulster's most dangerous t owns
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The Independent Online
Ministers are to consider suspending the exclusion order provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in the wake of the cessation of paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland.

And, in another milestone in the peace process, it was revealed yesterday that routine daytime military patrolling has ended in Newry, formerly regarded as one of Northern Ireland's most dangerous towns.

More than 50 people, many of them members of the security forces, have died in the streets of the Co Down town over the years.

The move is the latest in a series of reductions in security force activity. Earlier this month, routine daylight patrols ended in Belfast. They have also ceased in the city of Londonderry.

On top of the Newry move, troops will no longer be seen routinely during daylight in the city of Armagh and the towns of Keady and Warrenpoint. It is understood patrolling has also been wound down in republican strongholds such as Crossmaglen and east Tyrone, though patrols have not been completely halted.

Discussion has already begun in Whitehall on possible modifications to the PTA, due to be renewed in early March, as part of the gradual easing of security measures in the five-month aftermath of the IRA ceasefire.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, is determined that the Act should remain in force, not least because some provisions could apply to suspected terrorists with no connection to Northern Ireland.

But he is expected to consider abandoning exclusion orders, one of the most controversial parts of the Act. Although the order banning Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, has been lifted, there are 58 exclusion orders in force preventing Northern Ireland residents coming to Britain.

Mr Howard is not expected to issue further exclusion orders under the Act in the foreseeable future and some others are likely to be lifted gradually.

But no decision will be taken by the Cabinet committee on Northern Ireland, of which Mr Howard is still a member, until late next month. Ministers are still awaiting a report by the leading QC, John Jermyn Rowe, who is carrying out an official independent review of the workings of the Act.

Ministers could also make changes to the provisions allowing people with suspected terrorist connections to be detained for up to seven days without trial. At present the Home Secretary has the power to extend such detentions after 48 hours.

Last year the then shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair, offered bipartisan support for the Act if the Government scrapped exclusion orders and let a court rather than the Home Secretary extend detention after four days. Mr Howard refused the offer - and Labour subsequently voted against renewal of the Act.

However, it could be much more difficult for Mr Howard to resist changes in the present climate.

The final decision on whether to amend the Act could depend on advice by the intelligence services and security forces about possible risks still posed by those covered by the orders.