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Friday, April 9, 1999 Published at 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK


Balcombe Street gang to be freed

A prisoner, released early, is driven away from the Maze

The four members of the IRA's Balcombe Street gang will be among six republican prisoners freed from jail in the Irish Republic.

The Search for Peace
The men will be let out as part of the early release programme under last year's Good Friday Agreement. The four-man gang are due to be released next week while the other two are due for release on Friday.

The Balcombe Street gunmen took a couple hostage after a street battle in London, surrendering after a six-day siege.

The BBC's Northern Ireland Correspondent Tom Coulter reports
They were all given multiple life sentences for their part in a two-year bombing campaign in the early 1970s.

After serving 23 years in UK jails, they were last year transferred to the Irish Republic where their release has been sanctioned by Justice Minister John O'Donoghue.

[ image: Sinn Fein conference: Gerry Adams (right) and Hugh Doherty]
Sinn Fein conference: Gerry Adams (right) and Hugh Doherty
The two other men involved in the move are Dubliner John Kinsella, serving a 16-year sentence in connection with a bomb attack in Warrington, and Irish-American Liam Quinn, jailed for life in 1987 for the murder of a British policeman.

Kinsella and Quinn were also returned to Irish jails under the terms of a repatriation of prisoners agreement between the UK and Ireland.

Mr O'Donoghue gave the go-ahead for the freeing of all six men after receiving a report from the Irish Government's Release of Prisoners' Commission.

Sinn Fein conference

The move means that there are now only a few IRA members remaining at the Irish Republic's high-security Portlaoise jail, 50 miles west of Dublin.

Dozens have been allowed to leave the prison since the start of the peace process.

The Balcombe Street four include Hugh Doherty, a brother of Pat Doherty, a leading and influential figure within Sinn Fein.

The other members are Martin O'Connell, Harry Duggan and Edward Butler.

Last May, just a week after being sent to Ireland, the four men were allowed out for a single day to attend a special Sinn Fein conference called to consider the Good Friday Agreement.

They were given a warm reception from hundreds of delegates, and President Gerry Adams went on to describe the four as "our Nelson Mandelas".

The gang joined other prisoners released for the day from jails on both sides of the border in successfully backing calls for the conference to accept the Good Friday Agreement.

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