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The BBC's Denis Murray
"The jail itself will close completely by the end of the year"
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Alex Maskey of Sinn Fein
"Another part of our bad history is put behind us"
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Ian Paisley Jr of the DUP
"Tony Blair's legacy in Northern Ireland will be the mass release of mass killers"
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Monday, 24 July, 2000, 08:28 GMT 09:28 UK
Loyalist killer to be freed

Just a handful of prisoners will be left in the Maze
Convicted loyalist murderer Michael Stone is due to secure early release from the top security Maze prison on Monday under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Stone's release marks the beginning of a week in which the bulk of Northern Ireland's paramilitary prisoners are to be freed under one of the most controversial provisions of the 1998 accord.

The loyalist gunman achieved notoriety for a lone gun and grenade attack on the west Belfast funeral of an IRA man in which three people were killed. He was jailed for a total of six murders.

His release on Monday follows a High Court case last week in which he unsuccessfully challenged the prison authorities decision not to free him before last weekend.

The final wave of early releases includes IRA bomber Sean Kelly and loyalist Torrens Knight, convicted for the Greysteel pub murders. Between them they were responsible for 17 killings committed in the space of a week in 1993.

By Friday, a total of 430 loyalist and republican paramilitaries will have been released, leaving just a handful of prisoners in Europe's most secure prison.

Those remaining inside include three republicans who murdered Loyalist Volunteer Force leader Billy Wright in the prison in December 1997.

Michael Stone: Sentenced in 1989 to life imprisonment
Michael Stone: Sentenced in 1989 to life imprisonment
Members of the main paramilitary groups on ceasefire will all be released.

However, those ineligible for release include members of groups still active such as the Real IRA, Continuity IRA, the Orange Volunteers and the Red Hand Defenders, who are being held in Maghaberry prison.

The early release scheme has been one of the most criticised aspects of the peace accord which paved the way for the establishment of a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland.

The latest wave of releases has been condemned by unionist politicians in Northern Ireland and by Conservative MPs.

The Ulster Unionist MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, said relatives of victims killed or maimed by paramilitaries feel deeply frustrated because violence was continuing and there had been no decommissioning of illegal weapons.

"People are deeply depressed and frustrated that the paramilitaries have reaped the benefits of the agreement without a single bullet or a single ounce of explosives being decommissioned," the Lagan Valley MP said.

"They are also concerned that the paramilitary groups are continuing to exert influence and engage in violent activities."

Democratic Unionist Party assembly member Ian Paisley Junior said he was utterly disgusted that there had been no tangible decommissioning.

On Sunday, a Conservative Party MP said the early release scheme was "fundamentally flawed" and had been badly handled by the government.

Speaking on BBC's Breakfast With Frost programme, Basingstoke MP Andrew Hunter said there had not been a genuine and permanent renunciation of violence by the republican and loyalist paramilitaries.

He said the IRA and loyalists were "playing ceasefires tactically".

Mr Hunter's comments were criticised by Progressive Unionist Party Assembly member David Ervine and by a republican prisoners' representative and former IRA hunger striker on the same programme.

David Ervine: Hundreds of lives have been saved
The East Belfast MLA, who served 11 years in prison for transporting a bomb, said the early release scheme had saved "hundreds of lives".

"Next week, for the first time in my lifetime, there will be no political prisoners in Northern Ireland. Now that has got to be a watershed."

Lawrence McKeown of Coiste na n-Iarchimi, a republican prisoners' group, said republicans had served more than 100,000 years for paramilitary offences while members of the security forces had served less than 20 years.

McKeown, who spent 70 days on hunger strike while serving a life sentence for murder, criticised people who "individualised" prisoner releases by calling those who were being freed "mass murderers".

"People, regardless where they came from be it republicans, loyalists, members of the RUC, prison warders or whatever else, were born into a society which was in a conflict," he said.

"For a long time there was an attempt to crush that conflict through one way or another through military means. Hopefully, we are moving out of that situation."

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See also:

15 Feb 00 | Northern Ireland
Prison officers apply to leave service
09 Jan 98 | Northern Ireland
Inside the Maze Prison
04 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Maze prison closure on target
28 Feb 00 | Northern Ireland
End in sight for prisoner releases
19 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Killer loses release challenge
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