By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The release of four prominent prisoners from Portlaoise Prison as part of the Good Friday Peace agreement last week leaves only 19 convicted Provisional IRA men being held who were either transferred from British jails or are serving capital life sentences for the murder of Gardai.
There are four other Provisional IRA men still being held pending trials or extradition hearings.
The prison’s paramilitary wings also a number of other republican prisoners who are either non-aligned or are members of the INLA, the Continuity IRA or the so-called Real IRA.
The releases were sanctioned under the Criminal Justice (Release of Prisoners) Act and are being regarded as an effort to boost the flagging peace process.
The men were freed on the recommendation of the Release of Prisoners Commission which is comprised of two senior civil servants and a barrister.
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The four released — who were all from the Dublin area — were the last of the convicted IRA prisoners being held for firearms and explosives offenses committed south of the border and all were key IRA activists.
Three of the men released were amongst the IRA’s leading bomb-makers and had been serving 20 year terms for running a major bomb factory in a bunker at Clonaslee, Co. Laois. They had been sentenced by the Special Criminal Court last February.
The bomb factory was raided by Gardai in June 1996 when a large quantity of mortars, semtex, home made explosives, guns and timer units were discovered.
The three are Gabriel Cleary, 54, from Friarstown, Tallaght, John Conaty, 37, from Poppintree, Ballymun and Brian McNally, 57, from Foxrock.
Another man who received 12 years for charges relating to the Clonaslee bomb factory, Michael Cully, 47, from County Laois, was released last August.
The fourth man released was Denis Lahiff, from Dartry, Dublin, who had been serving a nine-year sentence for possession of arms and explosives.
The next batch of releases is expected to involve some of the prisoners who were transferred from British jails in the last year.
Gardai have strongly objected to the freeing of four Provisional IRA prisoners serving sentences for murdering members of the force and who qualify for early release under the terms of the peace agreement.
About 50 IRA prisoners have been released since the first IRA cease-fire in 1994.