Clegg becomes Tory ammunition

Dublin senses cynical political timing, writes Alan Murdoch
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The Independent Online
Dublin resigned itself to the inevitable early release of Private Lee Clegg some weeks ago, but this hardly defused deep Irish concern at its apparently cynical timing for use as Tory party electoral ammunition. The unilateral move also represents a pointed snub to Irish calls for equality of treatment for all those jailed as a result of the Troubles.

Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, noted that Irish concerns about giving the wrong signals, by taking the Clegg case in isolation, had been raised again with London as recently as four days ago at the Anglo-Irish conference. Yet, informed sources insist, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, gave no signal then to Dublin that the release was imminent.

Fears that nationalists will now see the British handling of the peace process as distinctly one-sided were considered by the Irish cabinet yesterday. Publicly, coalition sources were defining their mood as concern rather than dismay. But the terms of the response by John Bruton, the Taoiseach, left little doubt that he was seething.

Three weeks ago in Paris Mr Bruton probably succeeded in postponing the Clegg release when he clashed with the John Major on the issue, saying: "As far as I'm concerned, the law is the law and should apply equally to everyone."

He said afterwards: "Sometimes one has to say unpleasant things" - a rare glimpse of ire from someone whose Anglo-Irish stance is invariably among the most emollient.

Yesterday he first sent sympathy to the family of Karen Reilly, Private Clegg's victim, then reiterated his call for equality before the law and in executive action. His blunt assertion that he "now expects the British authorities to apply the same approach to all other similar cases, both loyalist and republican" is a challenge aimed at eliciting British movement on the wider prisoners' issue. Progress on that is recognised in Dublin as vital to ensuring that the IRA ceasefire remains secure through its August anniversary.

In the present circumstances of the ceasefire's survival for 10 months, restoring the 50 per cent remission for paramilitary prisoners (which was taken away in 1988 after a resurgence of violence) seems to Dublin a logical concession. A Fianna Fail opposition private member's Bill urging this in the Dail, later this week, may attract cross-party support.

Parties north and south of the Irish border feel that Sir Patrick has now clumsily dragged Northern Ireland issues into the Tory leadership on two, perhaps three, occasions in five days. First came his letter in the Times accusing Tory right-wingers of destabilising the Government's peace efforts.

Then came Mayhew's hard-line public threat (seen in Dublin as a pitch to the Tory right) to exclude Sinn Fein from political talks unless arms decommissioning concessions came from the IRA. And finally came the Clegg release itself.

Sir Patrick's standing is now at an all-time low in Dublin amid fears about what further difficulties his perceived insensitivity to nationalist concerns might yet throw up. Affirmations of confidence in Mr Major's commitment to the peace process from Mr Bruton have conspicuously excluded any reference to the Northern Ireland Secretary.

The Irish public will not have been under any illusion about Tory back- bench claims that the timing of Private Clegg's release was not determined by the leadership battle. Declaring himself a Major supporter, Peter Bottomley dropped a clanger in admitting on Irish radio that those supporting John Redwood were also among those seeking the Clegg release, thus identifying the issue as one on which vital votes could be swayed towards Mr Major a day before the Tory vote.

The timing of the Clegg move suggests desperation and indicates to many that Mr Major's position is weaker than it outwardly appears. Mr Spring, who has seen the Irish premier's job change hands six times since he entered the Dail in 1981, is already adjusting his statesman's syntax for the possibility of a new tenant in No 10 Downing Street.

While accepting that the Prime Minister had shown an early personal interest in Northern Ireland, he was deliberately opaque when asked whether any other Tory leader would match the attention given it by Mr Major. "I think that's a matter of opinion," he said guardedly.