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Northern Ireland secretary speaks to the BBC
"These decisions are not easy"
 real 28k

Friday, 28 July, 2000, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
Mandelson defends 'bitter pill'
Mandelson and Cowen
Peter Mandelson and Brian Cowen to discuss security
The Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, has said the release of paramilitary prisoners is a "very bitter and difficult pill to swallow".

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, 86 prisoners were freed on Friday.

Among them are some of Northern Ireland's most notorious killers including IRA bomber Sean Kelly, convicted of nine murders.

Mr Mandelson said: "These decisions aren't easy and in the short term will not be popular, but if they help deliver peace then I believe they will be justified."

"I don't feel easy or comfortable with what is happening today but I justify it because I think it is a necessary part of the process.

"What would people be asking me to do?

"Not to allow the releases go ahead and break the Good Friday Agreement to scupper the peace process?"

"What would people be feeling then if those were the consequences of my actions if I had acted differently."

Sean Kelly
Sean Kelly greeted by his mother

Mr Mandelson said he recognised the pain of all the releases: "Not just of the past week but of the last three years."

He ruled out any possibility of the remaining 15 paramilitary prisoners being freed before their release dates.

"People will only be released if they meet the terms of the Agreement provisions and the Sentences Act.

"That does not include, incidently, anyone who is involved in terrorist activity, and that goes in particular for the dissident republicans and the Real IRA who have committed offences since the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

Real IRA prisoners repatriated

Mr Mandelson said the repatriation of three Real IRA prisoners from jails in England to prisons in the Irish Republic was "nothing to do with the Good Friday Agreement".

The group was behind the bomb attack in Omagh, County Tyrone, in August 1998 which killed 29 people and injured more than 200 others.

Real IRA members Tony Hyland, Liam Grogan and Darren Mulholland were convicted of conspiracy to cause explosions in London in 1998.

Omagh bomb scene
Real IRA bombed Omagh in 1998

It is understood the three, who successfully applied to be moved under the European Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Person, will be sent to the high security Portlaoise prison, south of Dublin.

Mr Mandelson described the move as a "routine action".

"The important point is they are not being released and nor will anyone else who commits an offence since the agreement was signed," he said.

The Northern Ireland secretary is meeting Irish foreign minister Brian Cowen on Friday. One of the main items on their agenda is expected to be the growing threat from dissident republicans.

It follows an earlier meeting between Royal Ulster Constabulary Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan and the head of Irish police, Garda Commissioner Pat Byrne.

A spokesman said the pair met at Garda headquarters in Dublin " to discuss ongoing dissident activities".

The Real IRA was blamed for placing a device on a railway line in London 10 days ago.

The bomb near Ealing Broadway station was made safe by army experts after a controlled explosion.

Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist MP William Ross criticised the decision to repatriate the Real IRA prisoners.

"The Real IRA as we know is still engaged in violence," he said.

"I think there is going to be a feeling of absolute disgust in the heart and mind of every decent man and woman in Northern Ireland.

"This is a craven appeasement of terrorism."

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See also:

24 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Michael Stone: Notorious loyalist killer
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Brother's doubts over killer's release
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Inside the Maze Prison
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The prison that served its time
04 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Maze prison closure on target
28 Feb 00 | Northern Ireland
End in sight for prisoner releases
19 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Killer loses release challenge
28 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Paramilitary prisoners go free
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