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25 March 1999 Edition

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Home Secretary seeks hostages

It could have been, as a letter in The Guardian observed, the Straw which broke the back of the peace process. The British Home Secretary's failed attempt in Belfast High Court to block the release of Patrick Magee, Thomas Quigley, Paul Kavanagh and Joe McDonnell on Monday was, even by their own standards, an astonishingly crude attempt by the British Government to exert pressure on Sinn Fein ahead of the deadline next week for the setting up of the new Executive. The message was this; either decommission or we will hold these men and others as political hostages for the foreseeable future.

It also came at a time when Unionists, the RUC and the British Government were being thrown on to the defensive as more revelations about collusion, intimidation and threats come to light in the aftermath of Rosemary Nelson's assassination. The legal machinations by the Home Office could justifiably be intrepreted as an attempt to move political attention away from such uncomfortable questions and back on to decommissioning.

As perhaps the most serious crisis for the negotiations so far loomed on Monday afternoon, Jack Straw offered the rather feeble explanation that the extraordinary move was simply a means of ensuring that English law was being rigorously applied - although this is something which the Home Office has failed to do on many notorious occasions. Straw's argument to the High Court was based on the fact that the four men were sentenced in England and transferred to Long Kesh and thus that, as transferred prisoners, different rules applied with regard to the proportion of the sentence to be served. However, the 1998 legislation on the release of political prisoners, enacted as part of the Good Friday Agreement, makes it abundantly clear that transferred prisoners are to be treated in exactly the same way as those convicted in the Six Counties. In the High Court, Mr Justice Girvan dismissed the case, telling the Home Office's legal representative that the Northern Ireland Sentencing Review Commission had acted entirely within its powers in allowing the release of the four.

Straw was accused by Sinn Fein and others of attempting to directly interfere with current negotiations, a charge which he tried unconvincingly to refute by claiming that the legal action to block the releases had been in train for some four months. This claim sounds unlikely given that, at the same time, the press was led to believe that the Northern Ireland Office knew nothing about the action and that Mo Mowlem was `incandescent' at the news. If the Home Office initiated the legal action months ago, it would seem incredible if it had not been discussed and sanctioned at Cabinet level - including Dr Mowlem.

If, however, the NIO genuinely did not know about the legal action, whether or not it was only initiated the day before the release were due to take place, the charge of direct political interference with the peace process by elements of the British Government and of making prisoners hostages to the demand for decommissioning, becomes more urgent still. Further, if the latter scenario were the case and information was deliberately withheld from the NIO, the affair could also suggest serious tensions within the Government itself in its approach to negotiations.

But either way, Jack Straw and by extension the entire British Government have been badly humiliated in one of their own courts of law and the three prisoners were freed late last night. Pat Magee is due for release in June.

Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey, who was in court throughout the hearing said last night that the decision was ``the right one. Despite the Judge's antipathy to the Good Friday Agreement and the early release programme, he nonetheless found that the British Home Secretary had no grounds for halting the release''.

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