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Tuesday, June 22, 1999 Published at 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK


Opinion divides over Magee release

Release of remaining prisoners would allow closure of Maze

The Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has led an angry response in Northern Ireland to the release of Brighton bomber Patrick Magee.

But while the release has been criticised by support groups for terrorist victims, and by other unionist politicians, a republican pressure group insisted it was a necessary part of the Good Friday Agreement.

[ image: Patrick Magee leaves the Maze]
Patrick Magee leaves the Maze
Patrick Magee is the 277th prisoner to be freed under the early release scheme set up under the Agreement.

But his involvement in one of the most high profile terrorist acts of more than thirty years of violence ensured the decision to let him go would be a controversial one.

Five people were killed in the bomb attack in 1984, and scores more were injured. The then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet were lucky to escape with their lives.

Magee served 14 years despite the trial judge's recommendation that he spend at least 35 years in jail after sentencing him to eight life sentences.

As Patrick Magee walked free, First Minister David Trimble again questioned the wisdom of continuing the early release policy.

He asked the Government to look at it in regard to the failure by the paramilitaries to decommission weapons, and amid the continuing violence.

"I fear that the Government hasn't been focused on this question and I wish that they would," he said.

'Slap in face'

"It now seems that the victims are the only people who are serving a life sentence," said Brian McConnell, a spokesman for FAIR, the South Armagh based victims of paramilitary violence support group.

The Search for Peace
The Democratic Unionist Party called Magee's release "a slap in the face for the democratic process".

A DUP spokesman said he ought to be serving a 30 year sentence, and called for an end to the prisoner release scheme.

But Martin Meehan of Saoirse, a group which campaigns on behalf of republican prisoners, said the time Magee had served was equivalent to a life sentence.

He contrasted that with the treatment meted out to paratrooper Lee Clegg.

Others due for release

Clegg was convicted and subsequently cleared after a retrial of the murder of Belfast teenager, Karen O'Reilly.

He was released after serving four years in prison but later convicted of the attempted wounding of Martin Peake.

He received a four-year sentence in relation to that charge but was released on the basis of time already served.

Other prominent prisoners due for release include the IRA leader in the Maze, Padraig Wilson and loyalist chief Johnny Adair.

Given peaceful conditions in Northern Ireland, 400 prisoners should be freed under the scheme by the time its review date comes up in July 2000.

The Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam, will then have the option of releasing all the 100 remaining prisoners, which would allow the Maze Prison to be closed.

Life after prison

Michael Stone, the loyalist gunman who killed three people at the funeral of the IRA team shot dead in Gibraltar in 1988, could be released then.

Sean Kelly, the IRA man who carried out the Shankill Road bombing in which 10 people, including a fellow bomber, were killed may also be freed early.

A number of groups have been established for the rehabilitation of former prisoners, on both the loyalist and republican side.

They operate under the auspices of NIACRO, an organisation for the care and rehabilitation of offenders.

These groups want the records of those convicted of paramilitary offences to be expunged so prisoners can continue their lives after leaving prison.

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