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4 December 1997 Edition

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No release, no deal

Time to free the prisoners

No release, no deal. That was the message delivered by Gerry Adams to both the British government and republican activists at a Saoirse conference in Belfast on 30 November attended by around 200 people. The Sinn Féin President restated his party's commitment to refuse to sign up to any negotiated peace deal until all political prisoners are freed.

The issue of prisoners is, said Adams, a fundamental one and constitutes a ``central sinew'' of the peace process. Any political settlement would be unfeasible and unworkable if there were still prisoners, either republican or loyalist, still in jail.

He also raised the question of the British government's deadline of May next year for parties at the Stormont talks to come to an agreed settlement. ``Have they got arrangements for the release of all prisoners by May?'' he asked. Without that, he said, ``there cannot be a settlement... We have been clear about this from the start. The release of prisoners has to be a part of any deal and we want to give an assurance to people about that. Sinn Féin wants to see the release of all prisoners.''

The working conference, which was called to review the last Saoirse campaign and to plan activities for the coming year, was also addressed by Martin Meehan, the Saoirse Northern Chairperson. He reminded activists that December is traditionally prisoners' month and asked that extra efforts be made to highlight the conditions for prisoners, particularly those in English jails, throughout the coming month. He also called on former prisoners and prisoners' families to do everything they can to help ensure that the issue is moved up the political agenda.

Leo Green, from the Sinn Féin POW Department, brought up the matter of Lee Clegg and Ian Thain and the double standards of the British government in dealing with their sentences. He pointed out that 60% of the 384 republican prisoners currently held in Long Kesh have served longer sentences than either Clegg or Thain, even though the majority of them had been charged with far lesser offences. He also pointed out that every single republican prisoner had served longer than the British soldiers responsible for the murder of innocent nationalists on Bloody Sunday and longer than the countless other members of the Crown forces who had murdered nationalists over the past 28 years.

Other speakers at the conference included Carol Ni Chulainn from the ex-prisoners support group Tar Anall, Phil McCullough of Belfast Saoirse and Eoghan Mac Cormaic head of Saoirse in the 26 Counties, who gave delegates information about the various functions and activities in which their organisations are currently involved.

Underlying this, however, the basic message remained the same: all prisoners must be released as an integral part of the peace process, not as an optional extra, to be added once a settlement has been reached. The use of Irish republican prisoners as, in effect, political hostages, held by the British as a lever in negotiations is not acceptable. Where the British have been saying to republicans that once there is a deal they may think about prisoners, republicans are emphatically replying to the British that without the release of all prisoners, there will be no deal.
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