The ongoing detention of Old Bailey bomber Marian Price since her early release licence was revoked is being used as a recruitment tool by dissident republicans, the Assembly has been warned.
The republican's continued imprisonment in solitary confinement in the all-male high security jail at Maghaberry, Co Antrim, is helping militants argue that the British government can override the local justice system at will, a controversial SDLP motion claimed.
But unionists reacted angrily to the call for the convicted bomber to be set free and poured scorn on SDLP claims that her health was in jeopardy, noting that she was released on compassionate grounds in 1980 because she was apparently on "death's door".
Price was granted bail in a Londonderry court last May after being charged with supporting an illegal organisation - but she was not released because Secretary of State Owen Paterson made a separate decision to revoke her early release licence.
The 57-year-old former IRA hunger striker, who along with her sister Dolours was jailed in 1973 for her role in a republican bombing campaign in London, was accused of holding a speech for a masked man at a dissident rally on Easter Sunday.
The prominent member of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, a political group linked to the Real IRA, has since been charged in connection with providing a phone to the gang who gunned down two British soldiers outside Massereene barracks in Antrim in 2009.
SDLP Foyle MLA Pat Ramsey said the decision to revoke her licence was shrouded in secrecy and claimed MI5 involvement.
"Those of us in elected office must do everything within our power to prevent dissidents from succeeding," he said.
"Unfortunately however the actions of the secretary of state have unintentionally provided a recruiting tool for those individuals who are so intent on reigniting violence."
He added: "These groups have been able to stoke a sense of injustice in the community, to use it for political gain and to seek to mobilise young people in their actions against the democratic will of the people."
Price was originally released from prison in 1980 on health grounds - at the time it was claimed she was close to death as the result of an eating disorder.
Mr Ramsey questioned whether the government had the right to return her to jail, as he said she had received a royal pardon three decades ago. Details of which, he claimed, had gone missing from state files.
"Marian Price at this present time should not be in prison," he said.
"She should either be in hospital receiving medical care or she should be at home with her family."
But the DUP's Paul Givan said the secretary of state had a duty to protect the wider interests of society.
The Lagan Valley MLA accused the SDLP of being a mouth piece for Price's hardline political colleagues and of attempting to interfere with the deliberations of the parole commissioners, who will now adjudicate on her case.
"Marian Price was convicted because of her part in an IRA bombing unit that was responsible for bombing the mainland, the Old Bailey being the most notorious one out of them all, and was given a life sentence in 1973," he said.
"So that's who we are talking about - not some little old lady who has been sent to prison because they stole a bag of peas out a shop.
"Let's get real about what we are discussing in this chamber and why the SDLP are now wanting to act as proxy for the 32 Sovereign County movement is beyond me as to why they would want to do this."
He added: "There is an attempt being made to have undue influence brought to bear on how the parole commissioners are exercising their duty."
Before the debate began, Speaker Willie Hay issued a stark warning to members that they should not make any comments that would undermine ongoing legal proceedings involving Price.
Responding to the motion on the floor of the Assembly, Stormont justice minister David Ford said he was satisfied with the conditions the republican was being held in and that her medical needs were being addressed appropriately.
"I believe that she has been provided with the care that she required, the care which I would wish to see any prisoner provided with from the day she was admitted to Maghaberry prison," he said.
He explained that Price was kept in isolation because she was the only high risk category A woman prisoner in Northern Ireland. The minister said she had access to most areas of her wing throughout the day.
Mr Ford said the Northern Ireland Office's position was that Price had only received a pardon for one of three sentences she was handed in the 1970s, and she had been on early release licence for her two life sentences.
The minister stressed that the decision to revoke the licence on national security grounds was led by the secretary of state.
"As minister for justice I have absolutely no role in determining when a licence should be revoked or otherwise," he added.
Therefore he said he could not be instructed by an Assembly motion to take action in an area over which he had no responsibility.
"I will do all I can to ensure that whilst she is in custody she is treated in a way that meets her needs, recognising that she is in a specific position as the sole category A woman prisoner in Northern Ireland," he said.
"What I will not do is interfere with due process as it lies with the parole commissioners, the responsibilities that they have and the responsibilities the secretary of state has exercised in this respect.
"For that basis Mr Speaker I must reject the motion."
The SDLP motion was defeated in the vote despite support from Sinn Fein.