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Wednesday, December 23, 1998 Published at 18:52 GMT

Mowlam stands by terrorist releases

Brighton bomber Patrick Magee freed for Christmas

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, has defended the decision to release 170 terrorists from Northern Ireland's Maze Prison for Christmas.

The BBC's Tom Coulter reports on the releases
Among those being released to spend time with their families are IRA bombers Patrick Magee and Sean Kelly and some of the most notorious loyalist prisoners.

Ms Mowlam said she sympathised with those related to victims of terrorist attacks, particularly at this time of year, but she asked how many other people might be dead now had it not been for the Good Friday peace agreement.

[ image: Mo Mowlam:
Mo Mowlam: "It's the best chance for peace"
"The suffering they feel all year is so much exacerbated at Christmas and it's very, very hard. This is the best chance we have to get a non-violent future and it's crucial we do all we can to make it work," she said.

Loyalist Michael Stone, jailed for the murder of three people at Milltown cemetery in 1988, left the prison without speaking to waiting reporters.

The leader of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, Johnny Adair, has also been released for Christmas.

Victims' family protest

Families of some of Sean Kelly's 10 victims are outraged at the decision to grant Christmas and New Year parole.

[ image: Michelle Williamson chained herself to the prison gates]
Michelle Williamson chained herself to the prison gates
Kelly was smuggled out of the Maze after the daughter of a couple killed in the bombing chained herself to a turnstile at the exit of the prison in protest.

Michelle Williamson lost her parents George and Gillian in the IRA explosion when Kelly left a device in a Shankhill Road fish shop in 1993.

Ms Williamson described Kelly as a "murderous coward".

Unionists attack government

In the Irish Republic, 30 republican prisoners are also being released.

There have also been protests from some unionist politicians who say it is another sign of government weakness as the IRA has yet to begin disarmament.

Ms Wilkinson's MP Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson, said: "This government will throw the gates open regardless of what's happening politically. I don't think they care about people like Michelle or the impact these releases have on ordinary folk and the many families who have suffered at the hands of terrorists."

Les Rodgers, chairman of the Police Federation, which represents the RUC's rank and file, wrote to Ms Mowlam lending his support. But he said that although most "ordinary decent" people would see the releases as part of a wider peace process, his officers had found them "particularly difficult ... to stomach".

"We have done our utmost to protect the community, to detect the perpetrators of murder and violence and have derived a professional satisfaction from seeing them convicted by due process of the law.

"But we too have also accepted that their release was part and parcel of the agreement."

Hundreds of terrorist prisoners have already been secured early released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Permanent freedom by 2000

Special welcome home parties have been organised for some of the returning prisoners.

And a spokesman for the prison service defended the programme and the temporary Christmas releases.

He said: "This will help them maintain family links, and prepare them for release and reduce the risk of re-offending."

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, all paramilitary convicts are due to be freed permanently by the summer of 2000.

Magee, who was freed for 10 days last Christmas, tried to assassinate Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet in Brighton in l984.

Stone - who plans to marry after he is permanently released - has been out of prison for short periods before.

Apart from the paramilitaries, another 280 criminals held in the neighbouring Maghaberry Prison and at Magilligan Prison, Co Londonderry, will get 10 days' Christmas parole.

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