By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Six prisoners, including the Balcombe Street gang and the only American to be extradited to Britain, have been released in what is being seen as an effort to ease tensions between Sinn Fein and the Irish government and boost efforts to get a breakthrough on the stalled peace process negotiations, which resumed yesterday.
The four-man Balcombe Street gang is notorious in Britain and Northern Ireland for its no-warning bombing campaign in the 1970s that led to at least six deaths.
Last May, the four made a triumphant appearance and gave clenched-fist salutes to a standing ovation at the Sinn Fein ard fheis considering the Good Friday peace agreement, provoking widespread anger among Unionists.
With other IRA prisoners in favor of the cease-fire and the peace agreement, they had been given one-day furough from Portlaoise Prison to attend the meeting.
The prisoners had been on special release for Easter and their release was effective from April 9 after Justice Minister John O’Donoghue accepted a recommendation they should be freed from the Release of Prisoners Commission.
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The Balcombe Street gang include Sinn Fein vice president Pat Doherty’s brother Hugh, 49, of Carrigart, Co. Donegal; Edward Butler, 50, of Limerick; Harry Duggan, 47, of Feakle, Co. Clare, and Martin O’Connell, 47, of Kilkee, Co. Clare.
After being spotted outside a restaurant in Mayfair in 1975, they were pursued and took refuge in a flat in Balcombe Street, holding a middle-aged couple hostage.
During a six-day siege, they demanded a plane to take them to Ireland but eventually surrendered. They were given indeterminate multiple life sentences with a recommendation they serve at least 30 years. They were repatriated to Portlaoise Prison after the Good Friday agreement last year.
The two other prisoners released had also been repatriated from UK jails.
Irish-American William Quinn, 51, a former U.S. Marine who was originally from San Francisco, had been extradited to Britain from the U.S. for the 1975 murder of a policeman Stephen Tibbet, 21. He was given a life sentence in 1987.
Dubliner John Kinsella, 55, was serving a 16-year sentence on explosive charges in connection with a 1992 bomb attack in Warrington in which a man died. He had denied he was an IRA member and claimed he thought he was carrying stolen property and, unlike the other five, was released from Dublin’s Wheatfield Prison.
So far 36 prisoners have been released from jail since the Good Friday agreement.
Meanwhile, it was announced on Tuesday that four people have been charged in connection with the murder of Eamon Collins. Collins was a former IRA man who made statements against his erstwhile colleagues, and wrote a book about his life in the IRA which paints a very unflattering picture of the organization. He was found beaten and stabbed to death earlier this year near his home in Newry.