Ministers are preparing a likely change in the law that would bring the Northern Ireland jail remission system into line with that in mainland Britain by giving paramilitary prisoners the chance of release after half their sentences.
The move is understood to have been discussed by John Major and Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, within the last 24 hours and could be foreshadowed in a Commons statement before the House rises next week.
Although legislation would not be enacted until the next session of Parliament, the heralding of such a move would put added pressure on Sinn Fein to agree to a gesture on the all-important issue of arms decommissioning before 1 September - the first anniversary of the IRA ceasefire.
Since 1989 paramilitaries convicted of so-called "scheduled offences" and given sentences of more than five years are entitled to one-third remission provided they are of good behaviour while in prison. Under the legislation being considered by senior ministers they would be given 50 per cent remission, as on the mainland. That would mean that about 100 paramilitary prisoners from both sides of the Northern Ireland sectarian divide would qualify for immediate release.
It would also mean, according to semi-official estimates, that by the end of the century around 400 of the 960 paramilitaries in Northern Ireland gaols would be released earlier than under the present system.
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