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Wednesday, March 24, 1999 Published at 10:23 GMT

UK Politics

Talks continue as prisoners go free

A released prisoner is driven away from the Maze

Talks between UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish premier Bertie Ahern aimed at ending the impasse over decommissioning in the Northern Ireland assembly have ended without a breakthrough.

Chris West reports from Belfast: Early releases provided for in the Good Friday Agreement
The talks went ahead at the EU summit in Berlin on Tuesday night as three IRA prisoners walked free - despite an attempt by Home Secretary Jack Straw to halt their release.

Mr Blair and Mr Ahern agreed that civil servants should continue to meet to try and find a solution to the question of paramilitary arms.

The Search for Peace
Ulster Unionists are still refusing to form an executive for the Northern Ireland assembly with Sinn Fein as long as the IRA resists decommissioning any of its weapons.

The deadline for forming the executive is 2 April and it now looks increasingly unlikely that it will be met.

On Wednesday a grouping of smaller unionist parties will attempt to force a debate excluding Sinn Fein from power.

But a BBC correspondent says all parties are hoping that the failed attempt by the home secretary to halt the early release of four IRA prisoners will not cast a permanent cloud over the search for peace.

The BBC's Chris West: "Decommissioning is the outstanding unsolved problem"
IRA prisoners Thomas Quigley, Paul Kavanagh and Gerard McDonnell walked free from the Maze prison in Belfast on Tuesday night.

They were freed just hours after a High Court judge in Belfast rejected an appeal by Home Secretary Jack Straw to halt their release for "judicial clarification".

A fourth prisoner, Brighton bomber Patrick Magee - also subject to Mr Straw's appeal - will also be released this summer.

The home secretary's action had left many observers baffled and it was felt by parties on both sides of negotiations that it was perhaps unhelpful to have re-opened the question of prisoner releases at a time when decommissioning talks were at such a delicate stage.

[ image:  ]
A Home Office statement said that Mr Straw had acquired the clarification he needed and would not be appealing the High Court's decision.

Delivering his ruling, Mr Justice Girvan said: "Whether one agrees with the final decision or not is irrelevant in this case ... History will be the ultimate judge."

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.

The Sentences Review 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.

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