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Wednesday, May 20, 1998 Published at 13:11 GMT 14:11 UK


Prisoners' release could be key issue

Many prisoners, held in institutions like the Maze, could soon be free

Under the Good Friday Agreement, prisoners who are members of organisations observing a ceasefire will be eligible for release within a two year period.

In 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland, more than 3,500 people have been killed and thousands more injured. With that degree of suffering a proposal allowing at least some prisoners to go free early was bound to cause controversy, but as our correspondent Gary Duffy reports, many of those jailed for paramilitary offences were already due to walk free under existing schemes.

Part of the Good Friday Agreement proposes allowing prisoners who are members of organisations observing a ceasefire to be released within a two year period.

The government says that some 400 prisoners would be eligible for some form of early release within the next two years as part of the accord.

But under already existing arrangements, more than 45% would have been released within that time anyway. Around 200 of those inmates are members of the IRA. The others are members of Protestant paramilitary organisations.

Defenders of the decision to include proposals for prisoner releases within the Good Friday Agreement say many comparable settlements to problems around the world has have included similar measures.

But critics say that freeing those responsible for appalling crimes - even if in some cases it is only slightly before their expected release dates - is an insult to the whole community and undermines the principles of law and order.

Review

The Good Friday Agreement proposes setting up a special body to review the case of each prisoner on an individual basis.

Prisoners who are freed will be released on licence, and could be returned to jail if they commit another offence or associate with groups involved in violence. If past indications are anything to go by few inmates freed from jails here are likely to re-offend.



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