Bertie Ahern has accepted that four Provisional IRA men still held in Castlerea prison should be released as part of a comprehensive deal in the peace process.
The men should have qualified for release under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, but were denied amid controversy over their role in the death of Garda Jerry McCabe in 1996.
Pearse McAuley, Jeremiah Sheehy, Kevin Walsh and Michael O’Neill, who are serving between 11 and 14 years for manslaughter. They are the only members of the Provisional IRA convicted prior to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement to remain behind bars, North or South of the border.
A legal challenge to the imprisonment of the four earlier this year was rejected by the Irish courts. The Dublin government has never given a reason for their continued incarceration.
A fifth man, John Quinn, was released only after serving his full sentence.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said on Wednesday the goverment had “no option” but to release the men, known as the Castlerea 4. Mr Ahern told the Dublin parliament that Sinn Féin had made it clear in recent negotiations that without the men’s release there would be no deal.
The widow of Garda McCabe, Mrs Ann McCabe, said that the four should not qualify for release because they were “common criminals”.
Reading a letter on Irish from the former minister for justice, she said it stated that there was “no question of granting early release to those concerned, either under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement or, for that matter, on any other basis either.”
It is understood the Mccabe family is planning a legal challenge against any move to release the four.