Ulster: Irish prison releases will continue

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MO MOWLAM will today reject demands by her own backbench MPs to slow the release of paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland to put pressure on terrorist groups and stop punishment beatings.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was put under intense pressure last night, ahead of today's Tory-led debate, by a Commons motion attacking the prisoner releases from two Labour MPs, Frank Field, the former minister, and Harry Barnes, a backbench peace campaigner.

The motion said the prisoner releases should be "slowed up as a political sanction against a cynically and centrally organised regime of increasingly brutal intimidation".

Dr Mowlam was snubbed by Sinn Fein's leaders when she called a meeting to protest about the beatings by the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries, but sources said the Northern Ireland Secretary would make clear to MPs that the prisoner releases would go on. The Government is keen to avoid being accused of breaking the Good Friday Agreement.

A Downing Street spokes- man said: "We are taking the issue of punishment beatings very seriously. They are an affront to any civilised society. The Secretary of State has to make a judgement in the round as to whether the ceasefires are holding.

"She has taken into account the evidence given to her by the security services. It is her judgement that the ceasefires are holding. Clearly, we recognise that the issue of prisoner release is difficult but it is the Government's view that the best way to bring a lasting settlement is for the agreement to be implemented. There are no plans to change the prisoner release scheme."

Dr Mowlam's friends denied Tory claims that she was being put under pressure by the Prime Minister's office to respond to the criticism by the families of victims of the violence in Northern Ireland.

Andrew Mackay, the Tory spokesman on Northern Ireland, will today claim the Government is ignoring the working-class families who are suffering and will say ministers would have taken more action if it had been happening to middle-class families.

The Tories are insisting they are not breaking the bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland, but the prisoner releases are putting it under intense strain.