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Tuesday, March 23, 1999 Published at 15:40 GMT

UK Politics

Bid to stop prisoner releases 'vindictive'

Patrick Magee planted the 1984 Brighton bomb

A judge in Northern Ireland has begun hearing a judicial review into the case of four IRA prisoners whose release has been halted by the Home Secretary Jack Straw.

Gerry Adams: "I have protested to 10 Downing Street about this intervention"
As the proceedings got under way in Belfast, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams described Mr Straw's move as "stupid and vindictive".

He said there was clearly a political agenda behind the decision to delay the release of the four, who include Brighton bomber Patrick Magee.

The men were due to be freed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, but Mr Straw halted the process on Monday to allow for "judicial clarification" of the situation.

Tony Smith reports: "Unacceptable political interference"
Mr Justice Paul Girvan has decided to hear a full judicial review of Mr Straw's decision.

'Unique circumstances'

He said there was a "unique set of circumstances" and ruled that the four should stay in jail pending the outcome of the review.

The Search for Peace
Lawyers for the four told the court they believed Mr Straw was simply trying to suspend their release, which had already been agreed under the Good Friday Agreement.

Home Office lawyers will argue that the Sentences Review Commission stepped outside its remit by ordering the early release of prisoners convicted in England and Wales.

The commission decided Magee - who is serving seven life sentences for the 1984 Brighton bombing which nearly killed then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - should be released on 22 June.

The BBC's Ireland correspondent Denis Murray: "Sinn Fein is convinced there is a political agenda"
Three other IRA prisoners - Thomas Quigley, Paul Kavanagh and Gerard McDonnell - would have walked free on Tuesday if the home secretary had not intervened.

Whatever the outcome of the hearing the men are due to be released anyway under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement by 28 July 2000 at the latest.

Life sentences 'shorter'

The Home Secretary claimed in court papers that the commissioners acted erroneously by "treating the prisoners as if they were locally sentenced or permanently transferred".

It said they also "failed to give effect to the laws of England and Wales governing the detention and release of life sentence prisoners". Tariffs in England and Wales tend on average to be longer than in Northern Ireland.

The Home Secretary also claimed the commissioners "erroneously permitted a political agreement (the Good Friday agreement) to influence their construction of the 1998 Northern Ireland Sentencing Act".

John Thorne reports: "The atmosphere has changed because of intervention"
The four men were convicted in England and Wales of crimes committed on the mainland and were the first such IRA prisoners to be sent to Northern Ireland for imprisonment under the Good Friday deal.

They are also said to be the first life prisoners convicted by the English courts to come up for release under the scheme, which has so far seen 250 terrorist prisoners freed.

Mr Straw's request for a judicial review of a decision made by another public authority is extremely rare. The four men will have to remain in prison until a decision is reached by the High Court.

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