UNIONIST politicians in the North yesterday reacted angrily after it was confirmed that four former IRA prisoners who shot themselves to freedom from prison in Belfast have been granted special dispensation to return without fear of prosecution.
The Northern Ireland Office confirmed that Angelo Fusco, Robert Campbell, Paul Patrick Magee and Anthony Gerard Sloan have been granted special dispensation by Queen Elizabeth to return safely to the North after years of being on the run.
The move is not unexpected, as North Secretary Peter Mandelson announced in September that convicted paramilitary prisoners living outside the North would not be pursued by the authorities to be extradited and sent back to prison.
It is hoped the granting of the Royal prerogative of mercy for Fusco, Campbell, Magee and Sloan will put further pressure on the IRA to resume contact with the head of the decommissioning commission, General John deChastelain.
The four IRA men were among a group of eight who broke out of Crumlin Road prison in Belfast in 1981. Fusco, Magee and Campbell were convicted in their absence for their part in the murder of British Army Captain Herbert Richard Westmacott. Westmacott was shot dead by an IRA unit in North Belfast in 1980. He is the highest-ranking member of the SAS to be killed in the Troubles.
The men were later recaptured in the Republic and were jailed for eight years.
But because they had served less than two years of their original sentence they did not qualify for early release under terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
However, Mandelson's announcement in September was the first step towards the men's ability to return to the North freely and over the weekend was formally endorsed by the Queen when she signed the papers guaranteeing their safety from further prosecution.
Unionists yesterday denounced the latest move as a further example of the British government's appeasement of the IRA.
"I think this will reinforce the view of most people that the so-called peace process is totally one-sided," said Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party.
While Sinn Fein welcomed the move, North Belfast Assembly member Gerry Kelly said it was "only the tip of the iceberg" and said other prisoners should be granted similar dispensation.
Ulster Unionist MLA for Newry and Armagh Danny Kennedy said that the Government was piling on concession after concession to republicans and getting nothing in return.