Leading Article: Private Clegg and the peace process

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Nobody can be surprised at yesterday's release of Private Lee Clegg. The campaign to free him has been in full spate for months, and it was clear from the comments of ministers that it was only a matter of time before they yielded to pressure.

The inevitability of the move makes the timing, on the eve of the first ballot for the Tory leadership contest, all the more regrettable. It is only 10 days since Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, played his part in the leadership struggle by warning fellow MPs that in destabilising Mr Major, they were also destabilising the peace process. The Prime Minister's justifiably proud claim that he has been prepared to take serious party political risks for the great causes of his administration - low inflation and peace in Ireland - has thus been undermined by the decision on Private Clegg.

Even without this error of timing, the move was bound to strike a blow at the peace process. It suggests that Britain is prepared to manipulate justice and apply double standards to look after its own. The disturbances yesterday in Belfast testify to the frustration that nationalists feel at this hypocrisy.

The facts of the case speak loudly. Private Clegg was convicted of murdering Karen Reilly, an 18-year-old Belfast joyrider and member of the nationalist community. Nine judges in all - in the Crown Court, the Appeal Court and, finally in January, the House of Lords - all upheld the conviction. Yet the Government saw fit to ignore their decisions and release him after he had served just four years of his sentence. People sentenced to life usually have to wait 10 years before their case is reviewed.

The great fear must be that yesterday's decision could reduce the commitment of the IRA, particular of its members in jail, to the peace process. The views of those serving long sentences carry great weight: they are judged to have made the greatest sacrifices. Many, particularly those in English jails, have been treated harshly, moved about frequently from one jail to another, making it difficult for their families to visit. Paul Hill, one of the Guildford Four subsequently cleared of any offences, spent more than 1,600 days in solitary confinement. A number of IRA bombers have now served sentences in excess of 20 years.

The most optimistic reading of yesterday's events is that the release of Private Clegg is part of a wider strategy designed to give the Government political leeway to free paramilitaries on licence. The Government, naturally, has to weigh public opinion on both sides of the Irish Sea in making these judgements, but it would be a grave error not to place the case of Private Clegg in this context. If the Government is not to lose credibility with the nationalist community, it will need to move swiftly.