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Friday, August 7, 1998 Published at 14:10 GMT 15:10 UK

Mountbatten killer freed from jail

Part of the Earl's boat after the attack

The man who murdered Lord Mountbatten has walked free from jail under the terms of the peace agreement in Northern Ireland.

BBC Ireland Correspondent Mark Devenport explains why this decision is contraversial
Thomas McMahon, 50, from County Armagh, was one of the longest-serving prisoners in Ireland.

For two years McMahon has been on a programme of temporary release as part of a pre-release programme agreed by the Irish government.

[ image: The agreement contains provision for terrorist releases]
The agreement contains provision for terrorist releases
The Good Friday deal permits prisoners on both sides of the border to be set free on condition that the current IRA ceasefire stays in place.

Lord Mountbatten was the only member of the Royal Family to be killed during the Northern Ireland conflict.

The Earl was the last Viceroy of India and also Prince Charles' uncle.

Buckingham Palace has confirmed that the Queen had been informed of McMahon's release. A spokeswoman for St James's Palace said the Prince of Wales had also been informed.

Lord Mountbatten was murdered when his fishing boat was blown up by the IRA in 1979 off the coast of County Sligo in the Irish Republic.

Three other people died in the attack - Mountbatten's 14-year-old grandson Nicholas Knatchbull, Lady Brabourne, 82, and a 15-year-old local boy Paul Maxwell.

The Prince of Wales has reportedly never forgiven those responsible for the brutal slaying of the man he often felt was more of a father to him than the Duke of Edinburgh.

[ image: Police investigating the murder in 1979]
Police investigating the murder in 1979
Even as the peace process has given a fresh impetus to forgiveness and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Prince Charles has pointedly refused to meet Gerry Adams or other prominent Republicans.

The nation mourned in 1979 for a wartime hero, who held special status in the Royal Family for his role in having introduced the young Princess Elizabeth to her future husband Philip.

He also presided over Indian independence as the last Viceroy.

McMahon was the only person convicted of the murders although police believed a gang of six was involved.

Releases of convicted terrorists have been opposed by unionists, who say they should not be happening while terrorist activity such as car bomb attacks in Northern Ireland go on.

Condemnation of 'concession'

McMahon's release comes just days after the release of six other republican prisoners by the Irish government.

Among them was Dubliner Michael O'Brien, 38, who walked free from Portlaoise Prison.

Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson condemned the decision to free McMahon.

He said: "Once again the release of this notorious killer is another indication of the premature manner in which both the Irish and British governments are approaching the release of terrorist prisoners."

The move comes as 420 paramilitary prisoners in Belfast's top-security Maze prison begin filling in applications for early release.

Returned and completed forms will be assessed by the Northern Ireland Sentence Review Commission, and the first group could be out as early as the end of August.

Other notorious names are likely to follow including Brighton bomber Patrick Magee, and loyalist Ulster Freedom Fighters leader, Michael Stone, who opened fire on an IRA funeral in Belfast in 1988.

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