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Tuesday, March 23, 1999 Published at 22:05 GMT

UK Politics

IRA prisoners freed

A released prisoner is driven away from the Maze

Three IRA prisoners have been freed from Northern Ireland's Maze Prison, just hours after a High Court judge in Belfast rejected an appeal by Home Secretary Jack Straw to halt their release.

Denis Murray in Belfast: "The judge found against the Home Secretary on every ground"
Thomas Quigley, Paul Kavanagh and Gerard McDonnell left the prison in Belfast at 2145 (GMT) on Tuesday night.

A fourth prisoner, Brighton bomber Patrick Magee - also subject to Mr Straw's appeal - will have to wait until 22 June for his release.

A statement from the Home Office said "We made it clear we were seeking urgent clarification of the law as it applied to prisoners transferred to Northern Ireland jails from England and Wales.

"That clarification has now been obtained and we accept its decision."

Home Office sources made it clear the legal challenge was over and there was no question of any appeal against the High Court ruling.

The Search for Peace
Mr Justice Girvan delivered his ruling after hearing a judicial review on Tuesday.

He said there was no question the Northern Ireland Sentence Review Commission had acted in bad faith, describing its decision as "totally reasoned and carefully formulated".

He added: "Whether one agrees with the final decision or not is irrelevant in this case ... History will be the ultimate judge."

[ image:  ]
Earlier, 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.

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

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

Brighton bomb

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.

[ image: Magee: Serving a total of eight life sentences]
Magee: Serving a total of eight life sentences
Home Office lawyers argued that the Sentences Review Commission stepped outside its remit by ordering the early release of prisoners convicted in England and Wales.

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

Life sentences 'shorter'

The papers 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".

The three men released on Tuesday are the first life prisoners convicted by the English courts of crimes committed on the mainland to be freed under the agreement.

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