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The BBC's Denis Murray
"There are just too many ghosts"
 real 56k

Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson
"I think it is right to bring these paramilitary prisoners back into the political process"
 real 28k

Sean O Callaghan ex-prisoner
"Some of them may well be attracted to the dissident groups either side"
 real 28k

Frankie Gallagher, Gae Lairn resettlement project
"Most of the prisoners I know actively work within the community"
 real 56k

Friday, 28 July, 2000, 21:35 GMT 22:35 UK
NI prisoners savour freedom
Loyalists emerge to waiting supporters
Republicans emerge to waiting supporters
Many of Northern Ireland's most notorious paramilitary prisoners have been savouring their first day of freedom after securing early release under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Eighty-six inmates walked out of three top security prisons on Friday to be greeted by relatives and supporters.

The process which leaves the Maze prison outside Belfast virtually empty began shortly after 0900 BST on Friday when the first loyalist prisoners came through the turnstiles.

As republicans who have experienced suffering, we understand well the hurt of others

Jim McVeigh
IRA jail leader
The difficulties of administering a prison filled with some of the most notorious killers and bombers were reflected in the release process.

Eight members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) came through a gate normally reserved for visitors to avoid possible clashes with Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) and Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) supporters.

A number of people have been killed since the beginning of the year as tensions mounted between the different loyalist groups.

Torrens Knight, Stephen Irwin and Jeffrey Deeney, convicted for the Greysteel pub massacre in which eight people out for the night in the Rising Sun bar were killed, were among the loyalist inmates to be freed.

Tit for tat

Shankill bomber Sean Kelly was one of 46 IRA men to be freed at around noon.

Kelly planted the bomb which killed 10 people, including his IRA accomplice Thomas Begley, a week before the Greysteel killings.

While loyalist prisoners did not comment to the waiting press, representatives made statements on their behalf.

Prisoner releases
46 IRA
12 UDA
William Smith of the Progressive Unionist Party, which has links with the UVF, said: "We acknowledge the release of prisoners today will not be welcomed by everyone and we understand and sympathise with that view.

"It is not our intention to glorify this occasion."

John White of the Ulster Democratic Party, which has links with the UDA and UFF, underscored the continuing support of those groups for the Good Friday Agreement.

He added: "As we leave the prison for the last time to embark on a new future we are mindful of the many victims of the Troubles.

The IRA leader in the Maze, Jim McVeigh, said republican prisoners would walk free "unbowed and unbroken".

"We are determined to pursue and achieve the goals for which so many gave their lives, that is the establishment of a united democratic socialist republic.

"As republicans who have experienced suffering, we understand well the hurt of others," he said.

"We offer the sincere hand of friendship to everyone who is prepared to help build a new future for all of our people."

Jim Dixon: Survivor of IRA Rememberance Day bomb
Looking on as the prisoners walked free was Jim Dixon, who nearly lost his life in the IRA bomb blast on Rememberance Day in Enniskillen in 1997.

"I feel devastated that so many people have risked their lives and lost their lives in trying to protect this country.

"Now we we see these people being got out, money given to them and glorified and given places in government."

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson admitted the early releases were "a bitter pill to swallow".

"These decisions aren't easy and in the short term will not be popular but if they help deliver peace then I believe they will be justified.

"What would people be asking me to do?

"Not to allow the releases go ahead and break the Good Friday Agreement to scupper the peace process?"

Maze 'virtually empty'

Some of the 14 inmates who remain in the Maze have release dates later this year.

Among those staying behind bars are members of the INLA convicted of killing former LVF leader Billy Wright in the Maze in 1997.

The releases mean the jail, which has seen murders and a mass escape of IRA prisoners in 1983, will be virtually empty.

It is earmarked for closure later this year, and at that point any remaining prisoners will be transferred to Maghaberry.

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See also:

28 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Paramilitary prisoners are freed
28 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Arms find 'bound for NI'
27 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Paramilitary killers in profile
28 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Mixed reaction to prisoner releases
15 Feb 00 | Northern Ireland
Prison officers apply to leave service
24 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Loyalist killer freed from Maze
27 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Victims' pain as paramilitaries walk free
28 Jul 00 | Northern Ireland
Mandelson defends 'bitter pill'
28 Feb 00 | Northern Ireland
'End feud' loyalist politician appeals
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