By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — As the implementation of the peace process accelerates, the last of the 22 Provisional IRA prisoners being held in the fortress-like Portlaoise Prison are being moved this week to more comfortable surroundings in a recently completed jail in County Roscommon
The prisoners will leave 38 other republican prisoners belonging to various breakaway factions or who describe themselves as non-aligned being held in Portlaoise and Limerick prisons.
The move comes as the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, speaking in the Dail, delivered a blunt warning to dissident republicans.
"If there are still sinister forces waiting tactically for the most propitious moment to try and destroy by their actions the working of the Good Friday peace agreement, let me issue a warning.
"This government and this house representing the Irish people, will not tolerate any paramilitary attack by dissident organizations.
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"There is no vestige of an excuse today for any organisation that would call itself republican to repudiate or deny the living democracy that now exists in Ireland both North and South."
He said the government was determined that the dissidents would for all practical purposed be dissolved and disarmed "if they will not do voluntarily that themselves."
The prisoner plan is for the IRA inmates to live in houses in the grounds of the Castlerea prison complex in County Roscommon.
When the prison was built on the site of an old mental home, a village design concept was used where prisoners would largely cater for themselves.
The IRA prisoners are already receiving generous temporary release for work experience and family-related matters and most are expected to receive extended Christmas and New Year parole.
A Justice Department spokesman would not give an exact date for the transfer. The freed up space in Portlaoise is expected to be used for high profile criminals from the overcrowded Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.
The early release provisions of the Good Friday agreement means that 18 of the IRA prisoners will be freed by next May. All of them have been transferred from British jails.
However, four of the IRA men will be remaining in Castlerea beyond May.
They were convicted of the June 1996 killing of Detective Gárda Jerry McCabe during an abortive post office van robbery in Adare, Co Limerick.
They had been arrested but not convicted when the Good Friday agreement was negotiated but the taoiseach turned down repeated requests from Sinn Féin to include them in the early release scheme.
When they were sentenced earlier this year by the Special Criminal Court, the government said they would serve "significant terms."
The strongly fortified Portlaoise Prison, with its special army detail backing up prison officers, has been associated with hardline republicans since the early 1970s.
It will continue to hold prisoners aligned to the dissident republican groups opposed to the peace process or not yet part of the early release scheme.
Remaining in Portlaoise will be 17 Real IRA prisoners, seven who have been convicted of republican offences but are not claiming alignment to any particularly group, six from the Irish National Liberation Army, four from the Continuity IRA, and two who claim allegiance to a group called the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
There is also one Continuity IRA prisoner and a non-aligned republican prisoner in Limerick Jail.