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Britain To Transfer IRA Prisoners

April 24, 1998

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Accused by Protestants of ``buying off terrorists″ to drum up support for a peace accord, Britain said Thursday it will transfer five of the IRA’s most notorious bombers and murderers to jails in the Republic of Ireland.

The prisoners _ serving multiple life terms and told by the British government in January that they would never be released _ include a brother of Pat Doherty, vice president of the IRA’s political ally, Sinn Fein.

Four of the men were linked to 1974 pub bombings in Guildford, west of London, and Woolwich, a southwest London district, in which a total of seven people were killed. Four men sentenced for the Guildford bombing were pardoned in 1989.

Pro-British Protestant parties denounced the imminent transfer to the republic, where the men may be released relatively swiftly, as another cave-in to Catholic nationalists before a May 22 referendum on the accord.

``It is simply a staging post. They are being put on the slip road so they can be released,″ said Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, which is campaigning against the accord.

Members of the Ulster Unionists, the main Protestant party, also were deeply upset, calling it ``buying off terrorists.″

However, if the Protestant-Catholic power-sharing deal is implemented, and the Irish Republican Army sticks to a cease-fire, the men would have walked free soon anyway.

A particularly controversial clause of the April 10 accord provides for the release of several hundred prisoners _ assassins, bombers, racketeers, thugs _ within the next two years.

Four of the prisoners _ Edward Butler, Henry Duggan, Hugh Doherty and Martin O’Connell, now in their 40s _ held a married couple hostage for six days in central London’s Balcombe Street in 1975 after a wave of bombings and shootings.

Chris Mullin, a British lawmaker who campaigned for the release of the men wrongly convicted in the Guildford bombing _ a case depicted in the 1993 movie ``In the Name of the Father″ _ said some of the Balcombe Street group admitted to police they’d been involved, but were never investigated.

The four have been in jail in England since 1975, with their parole requests, reviewed every five years, repeatedly refused.

At the last review in January, Home Secretary Jack Straw, the British Cabinet official responsible for the transfer, gave them a ``whole life tariff,″ his aides said, meaning no time set for parole even being considered.

The fifth man being transferred, Paul Magee, is in the same situation.

Magee got a second life term in 1993 for killing a part-time policeman near Tadcaster, northern England, when confronted by police while on the run from jail. He had already been jailed for life for killing a British army officer.

In Dublin, the Irish government gave no indication when the five might be released.

Earlier, in another jolt for Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority, a local commission agreed to a request by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to delay announcing decisions about the fate of Protestant marches until after the referendum.

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