The release of Provisional IRA prisoners still held at Castlerea jail are a bargaining chip for the Dublin government in its continuing negotiations with Sinn Féin, the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern has confirmed.

Dublin officials said they would release those jailed for the manslaughter of a police detective in 1996 if a final deal to bring “Provisional paramilitarism” to an end.

Despite frequent claims to the contrary, they confirmed they were always prepared to consider the release of the four men held in County Roscommon in such circumstances.

Michael O’Neill, Jeremiah Sheehy, Kevin Walsh and Pearse McAuley received lengthy sentences in 1999 for the death of Garda Jerry McCabe in an abortive raid in Adare, County Limerick.

The Provisional IRA initially denied involvement but later said its members had been acting without authority.

On Saturday, the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, said: “What we, in Government, have said is that we will not give consideration to the early release of those prisoners as long as Provisional paramilitarism is involved. That has been the position in Government and until we get to that end position we don’t give consideration to it.

“What we have been trying to get to for the last number of years is to get to acts of completion: full, verified acts of completion and the end of paramilitarism.”

The Government, he promised, would discuss the issue with the family of the deceased detective if a final agreement to end the Provisional IRA was near.

“We have said a number of times that if we come to a position that we find that we are in a closure agreement, and if that was part of that agreement we would then consult with the authorities and, of course, with the McCabe family, and his widow. But we are not at that stage. Unfortunately, I don’t think we are near that stage,” Mr Ahern said.

Predictably, there was some cabinet disunity on the issue, with the Deputy Prime Minister, Mary Harney, insisting the situation had not changed, and that the four men were not eligible for release under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Former opposition leader Michael Noonan, accused the coalition government of “slithering away” from past guarantees that the four men would not be released before time.


Meanwhile, dissident prisoners in Portlaoise prison have threatened to stage a protest in a dispute over the treatment of ‘Real IRA’ leader Michael McKevitt.

McKevitt, who is serving a 20-year term at the jail for his controversial conviction for ‘directing terrorism’, chose not to attend his mother’s funeral on Thursday after rejecting the terms of leave offered to him by the Prison Service.

The offer of release by prison authorities, initially declined, was limited to a few hours at the church ceremony and burial under armed escort.

In a statement last night his fellow republican dissident inmates said their status as political prisoners had been attacked.

Referring to McKevitt, the statement said: “The Department of Justice has discriminated against one of our comrades; it has reneged on its commitments; it has acted in bad faith and it has attacked our status as political prisoners.

“As republican prisoners we are prepared to pay any price to uphold our political status.

“If this issue is not resolved our protest will escalate over the coming days.”

The prisoners accused the prison service of breaking an agreement made with the Department of Justice in January last year about attending funerals.

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