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Sunday, May 10, 1998 Published at 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK

Prisoners support peace deal
image: [ Party leaders welcome the Balcombe Street gang ]
Party leaders welcome the Balcombe Street gang

A Sinn Fein member explains her opposition to the peace deal (2'50")
IRA inmates are giving their support to the Northern Ireland peace deal at the conference where Sinn Fein is deciding whether to back the agreement or not.

The British and Irish governments authorised the temporary release of several convicted paramilitaries to allow them to travel to Dublin to urge the 1,500 party delegates to vote 'Yes'.

Hero's welcome

[ image: Members are expected to approve the proposals]
Members are expected to approve the proposals
Inmates such as Padraig Wilson, the IRA's leader in Northern Ireland's Maze jail, received a hero's welcome as they arrived at the conference.

The Balcombe Street gang - four IRA prisoners transferred from British jails to custody in the Irish Republic less than a week ago - were given a 10-minute standing ovation.

The four, jailed in 1975 after a siege in London, were mobbed by well-wishers as they walked to the stage.

Backing from prisoners

Wilson said that jailed IRA personnel fully supported the Sinn Fein leadership's stance on the peace accord.

[ image: Wilson: says the republican struggle is not over]
Wilson: says the republican struggle is not over
"We are here to give our backing to the motions tabled by the party executive endorsing the agreement and permitting members to join a Northern Ireland assembly," he said.

"We have had long debate about this since the agreement was reached in Belfast last month and there are views both for and against it.

"There is no feeling that this is the end and that it is over - the struggle for us as Irish republicans is not over. We have a long way to go and see this as just another phase of the struggle.

"But, most importantly of all as prisoners, is that we go through it together."

Wilson said: "There are concerns, though I would not say doubts, over the leadership's position - we are happy enough about that."

Call for early release

[ image: Splinter groups have condemned the Sinn Fein leaders' support for the peace deal]
Splinter groups have condemned the Sinn Fein leaders' support for the peace deal
He called on the British Government to "take a leaf" from the approach shown by the Dublin authorities and authorise the early release of jailed IRA personnel.

"We aren't ignorant of the sensitivities of the issue or the feelings of those who have suffered loss and grief, but prisoners are victims of this conflict as well," Mr Wilson added.

"We have all suffered and we have all inflicted hurt, and the biggest test of all will be, can we heal? I think we can."

'A watershed day'

Earlier the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams told reporters: "In terms of republican struggle it's a watershed day, an historical day."

[ image: Adams: says he has not betrayed the republican cause]
Adams: says he has not betrayed the republican cause
He opened the conference by urging delegates: "Be kind to each other, have a good debate and let battle commence."

The meeting is expected to endorse the agreement which goes to a referendum on both sides of the Irish border on May 22.

The party is also expected to break with precedent and give the go-ahead for members to take seats in the new Northern Ireland assembly.

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