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Tuesday, July 6, 1999 Published at 13:03 GMT 14:03 UK

UK Politics

Sinn Fein seeks prisoner assurances

Seamus Mallon (left) says the SDLP could exclude Sinn Fein

Sinn Fein has urged the government to give assurances that there will be no interference in the early release of paramilitary prisoners.

The Search for Peace
Downing Street has confirmed the process could be reviewed if the IRA fails to decommission its weapons.

The latest proposals to break the deadlock over the Northern Ireland peace process state the IRA must agree to decommissioning within days of the assembly's executive being formed on 15 July.

But Sinn Fein strategist Gerry Kelly said he wanted a guarantee from Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam that there will be no interference in the early release scheme.

[ image: Gerry Kelly: Wants an assurance from Mo Mowlam]
Gerry Kelly: Wants an assurance from Mo Mowlam
He said such a move would breach the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Fein warns that if any part of the accord falls, the entire process would collapse

Downing Street has said if any of the parties default on their commitments over decommissioning under the agreement, it will then be up to Dr Mowlam to "look at the situation".

The BBC's David Eades: "Yet more political manoeuvring"
Prime Minister Tony Blair's office is stressing this has always been the case under the Northern Ireland Sentences Act, which allows prisoners to be released early on licence.

Officials are making clear any review would involve future releases of prisoners.

Those already out on licence, such as Brighton bomber Patrick Magee, would not be recalled unless they were found to have returned to violence.

The BBC's Andy Tighe: "They're puliing out all the stops"
Legislation in the wake of last week's peace blueprint is currently being drafted, and will be published "within days", a spokesman for the prime minister added.

Mr Blair has assured Ulster Unionists that if the IRA defaulted on decommissioning a "failsafe" mechanism would exclude Sinn Fein from power in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

[ image: The IRA must commit to disarming this month]
The IRA must commit to disarming this month
Downing Street is also stressing that the executive could continue, even if Sinn Fein was excluded.

But the body would have to be suspended, and a "new executive" would be set up, if the remaining parties wanted it.

Government sources dispute Sinn Fein's claims that such a body would not be "inclusive" as laid down under the Good Friday Agreement, as the nationalist community would be represented by the SDLP.

The way the Good Friday Agreement is drafted means Sinn Fein can only be expelled from the executive with cross-party support, requiring the backing of the nationalist SDLP.

Seamus Mallon: "I want to test it, I want to prove it to be the one or the other"
The party's deputy leader Seamus Mallon said on Tuesday that his party would be the first to exclude Sinn Fein if they defaulted on their commitments.

He said he did not know whether the IRA would go ahead with decommissioning, but told the BBC: "I want to test it, I want to prove it to be the one or the other.

[ image: The assembly's executive could be set up next week]
The assembly's executive could be set up next week
"If it is proved it is a devious ploy then I will be the first - our party will be the first - to have them removed from every vestige of the political process."

In another development, US President Bill Clinton spoke to Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble in an attempt to secure his backing for the process in a telephone conversation lasting only about eight minutes.

The implementation of the agreement, which paves the way for devolution in Northern Ireland, has been stalled by the Ulster Unionists' refusal to sit in a government with Sinn Fein before the IRA begins handing in its guns.

Sinn Fein maintains there is no such precondition contained in the Good Friday Agreement.

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