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CELL-OUT!Irish debate whether to free cop killers under peace deal

February 15, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN – The provision in the Belfast Agreement for the release of paramilitary prisoners within two years has led to an uncomfortable debate in the South that is focusing on eight men in jail for killing Gardai and four still facing charges following the shooting of Det. Garda Jerry McCabe during an abortive post office raid in Adare in 1996.

Some politicians appear to be applying double standards to the question of prisoner releases – one of more controversial aspects of the peace deal – between North and South.

In Northern Ireland, families and friends of 299 RUC men will have to come to terms with the release of their killers if they are to vote for the peace deal in the referendum. In the South, the prospect of freeing cop killers is proving difficult to come to terms with and has reopened old wounds.

Limerick TD and former Justice Minister Des O’Malley, the founder of the Progressive Democrats, said that anyone convicted of a Garda murder should serve the full 40 years. He said the release of anyone serving capital murder sentences “should not be contemplated.”

It would be “appalling,” he said, if people were convicted of McCabe’s murder and were then released within two years. He could see no political content in the Adare murder.

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The McCabe situation also caused the Democratic Left’s Pat Rabbitte to have reservations. He said he would find the release of McCabe’s killers a “bitter pill to bite on.”

Justice Minister John O’Donoghue has intervened to say that anyone convicted of McCabe’s killing would be an exception to the peace deal amnesty and that Sinn Fein leaders had been told this in the negotiations.

However, Sinn Fein Ard Comhairle member Cathal Crumley of Derry, who is head of the POW Department, said the minister’s claim “would be a matter of some dispute.”

He said they saw the prisoner issue as a key one and had sought a one-year release date in the talks instead of the two years finally

agreed. Originally, three years had been proposed.

There is no specific mention of Garda or RUC killers in the peace deal, which only refers to “convicted” prisoners.

There is no mention of prisoners on remand still facing charges in prisons or those on the run, but Crumley said all would have to be covered.

“All outstanding arrest or extradition warrants will have to be withdrawn and men on the run would have to be allowed home without fear of arrest,” he said. “Some of this will be unpalatable even to us, but we can’t have a selected view.

“We couldn’t possibly have a scenario where people were being extradited in two years time and people were being arrested on foot of warrants going back 10 years when we will all be sitting there and supposed to be working toward agreement and getting on with the important business.

“We are sensitive to the victims, but we can’t let this stop the

process. We have to move on. We are either in a peaceful situation or we are not. We are either in a settlement phase or we are not.”

He said the release of loyalists responsible for the Greysteel pub massacre would cause furor in Derry, but peace could not come if all prisoners were not let out. “There has to be parity on the issue – it is one of the tough situations we have to face,” Crumley said. “People will have to take an overview on the whole situation.”

There are 294 IRA “political prisoners,” 60 of whom were serving life sentences. More than 10,000 Republicans have passed through jails since the Troubles began.

The prisoner debate has prompted the Labor party leader, Ruairi Quinn, to call for consistency north and south of the border on the issue of prisoner releases.

He described O’Donoghue’s statement on the McCabe situation as “unbalanced and reckless,” adding that the decision not to release McCabe’s killers would outrage people in the North who had relatives in the police force there who had been murdered.

“We cannot have one set of values for one side of this island and not expect and understand that people from the other side, in the other community, would now say, ‘Wait a second, these people are trying to have it both ways,’ ” Quinn said. “We have to be extremely sensitive to the balance – and the perception of parity and balance – as decisions are made.”

The Belfast Agreement says both the Irish and British governments will put in place mechanisms to provide for an accelerated program for the release of prisoners and legislation for this should be enacted before the end of June 1998.

“Prisoners affiliated to organizations which have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal cease-fire will not benefit from the arrangements. The situation in this regard will be kept under review.”

Both governments will complete a review process with a fixed time and set prospective release dates for all qualifying prisoners and the review process will allow “account to be taken of the seriousness of the offenses for which the person was convicted and the need to protect the community.”

The agreement states the intention would be that, should the circumstance allow it, any qualifying prisoners who remain in custody two years after the commencement of the scheme would be released at that point.

The governments have also pledged to facilitate the reintegration of prisoners and to help with retraining and education.

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