Repatriation for Balcombe Street gang now likely

 

The way has been opened for the "Balcombe Street Gang" to be transferred to Portlaoise Prison to serve out the remaining years of their sentences.

The British Home Office informed the four men on Friday that the Home Secretary, Mr Jack Straw, had decided their prison tariffs should be "whole life". This means they cannot apply for release on parole until they have served 25 years imprisonment.

This tariff (or minimum period of their sentence which they must serve) must apply after their transfer to Portlaoise Prison. For the four gang members, it is understood this means their earliest release would be in December 2000.

Government sources in Dublin indicated last night that they expected the four men would apply quickly for transfer here.

The Home Office said Mr Straw had taken into consideration the "gravity of offences" committed by Eddie Butler, Hugh Doherty, Joe O'Connell and Harry Duggan.

They were convicted of six murders and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1977, with a recommendation that they serve 30 years. The gang held an elderly couple hostage for five days in Balcombe Street, London, before surrendering in December 1975.

The British Prison Service spokesman said the tariff did not prevent an application but assurances would be sought from the Irish Government that "no great reduction" in their sentences would follow.

The British Prison Service is considering Paul Magee's application for repatriation. He was found guilty of murdering an undercover SAS officer in 1981, when he had escaped from the Maze. He was later sentenced to life for the murder of Special Constable Glen Goodman.

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said yesterday that despite the "whole life" tariff decision, the Balcombe Street men's cases would be reviewed.

The men's supporters have criticised Mr Straw, saying his decision sends the message "that murder in England is worse than murder in Northern Ireland". The Shankill Butchers gang had been released but the Balcombe Street gang stayed in prison, a spokesman said. "We don't want to compare offences . . . a natural life tariff is for psychopaths, but there is no question of them [the Balcombe Street gang] doing it again."

Ms Gareth Peirce, the solicitor representing O'Connell, said the tariff was an "extraordinary irony", given the Bloody Sunday inquiry. She said the four men had joined the IRA primarily as a result of the events on that day.

Ms Peirce said she thought the men would not want to do anything to jeopardise their applications for repatriation.