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Thursday, May 14, 1998 Published at 18:33 GMT 19:33 UK

Confronting the pain of the past

Michael Stone (background): killed three in Milltown Cemetary 10 years ago

The most difficult part of the Good Friday political agreement for many in Northern Ireland is the release of prisoners. The issue is seen by many as vital in helping to end the conflict that has dogged the province for the last 30 years. As BBC News online's Oliver Conway reports from Belfast, for the families of the prisoners' victims, there is much pain involved in forgetting the past.

[ image: Michael Stone: Released in May on special licence]
Michael Stone: Released in May on special licence
The deal worked out at Stormont includes plans to release after two years all prisoners affiliated to organisations maintaining a ceasefire - which currently includes the IRA, the UVF, the UFF and the Red Hand Commando.

It also increases prisoner remission from 50% to 66% for fixed sentences and reduces life sentences.

People who have suffered at the hands of the prisoners are divided on the issue. Some view it as a betrayal, while others say it is an essential ingredient of conflict resolution.

One caller to BBC Northern Ireland's Newsbreak programme said the idea that they were prisoners of war was false.

[ image: Balcombe Street Gang: Welcome at Sinn Fein conference...]
Balcombe Street Gang: Welcome at Sinn Fein conference...
"These people are cold blooded murderers. They are in prison for cold blooded murders," he said.

His views echoed those of Ann Finlay, a Protestant whose Catholic husband was murdered by terrorists 20 year ago.

"I personally don't think people should be released who have done murder. I find it very hard to forgive somebody who ruined my life."

One man told the BBC that he found it difficult to accept the idea that prisoners would return to live in the same areas as their victims. He said his brother had been killed by two men who lived less than 10 miles from his family's home.

However, Diana Hamilton-Fairley, whose father was killed by the Balcombe Street Gang, has backed the Yes campaign despite her loss.

[ image: ...but victim's daughter says it is time to move on]
...but victim's daughter says it is time to move on
She said: "I believe you must do things for the greater good. Yes it was very difficult, but times move on.

"To continue to hold any feelings towards what these people do doesn't help me and it doesn't help anybody else."

Another caller to the BBC said he supported the release of prisoners despite the fact that he had lost a father and been injured himself in the troubles. "The prisoners are victims of circumstances," he added.

He also questioned whether victims had actually been asked for their views. He said he knew of no one in his community who had been approached, even though more than 50 people had been killed there.

"Prisoner releases are directly relates to the sensitivities of the victims," he said.

'Selective approach'

The Sinn Fein spokesman for prisoners, Cahal Crumley, said there had been a selective approach to the issue.

[ image: Ian Paisley: Accused of using the issue]
Ian Paisley: Accused of using the issue
He said the Democratic Unionist leader, Ian Paisley, and his UK Unionist counterpart, Robert McCartney, had highlighted the victims in an attempt to promote their No campaign.

Mr Crumley said he understood the disquiet of those who had suffered, but added: "In a sense we are all victims of the conflict."

He said he knew a man who met the soldiers who had killed his two sons, and had had to face up to the fact that those soldiers would never be taken to prison.

Brian Gormley, of the Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said: "Without prisoner releases there won't be a peace and it will build up more victims for the future."

He added that prisoners were well aware of the pain and hurt that the troubles had caused to society and particularly the direct victims of violence, but said the issue of prisoner releases had to be looked at in the context of the entire conflict.

A former loyalist inmate who works with ex-prisoners, Martin Snodden, said: "Prisoners have not only been peace breakers, they have been peace makers, peace keepers and peace builders."

Paramilitaries on the run

[ image: Tony Blair: Offering guarantees on release of prisoners]
Tony Blair: Offering guarantees on release of prisoners
Some people have expressed concern that the Good Friday Agreement will allow for the release of those who have committed offences recently.

In theory any member of an organisation which has been on ceasefire since before April 10 will be eligible for early release.

This includes Ulster Defence Association (UDA) members arrested for committing the murders which led to the expulsion of the Ulster Democratic Party from the Stormont talks.

But Mr Gormley pointed out the secretary of state would have to certify which groups had satisfied the ceasefire requirements.

He also pointed out that there was no provision in the agreement for ending ongoing police searches for offenders who have not yet been caught.

That omission was criticised by Mr Crumley. He said it was "ludicrous" to pursue warrants for activities in the past. "It will only recreate the problem," he said.

Mr Snodden said the community needed to look to the future and not to concentrate on the past.

However, Mr Gormley said there may be a case for some kind of truth and amnesty commission.

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