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Tuesday, June 22, 1999 Published at 08:06 GMT 09:06 UK

UK Politics

Outrage as Brighton bomber freed

Patrick Magee (left) is greeted by former IRA inmate Martin Meehan

Tony Blair has admitted terrorist prisoner releases are "very hard to stomach" after the Brighton bomber walked free.

Denis Murray reports: "His release highlights the pain of the families"
Patrick Magee attempted to kill former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet in a 1984 attack during the party's annual conference.

The IRA man was given eight life sentences for the bombing, which left five dead and 34 injured, and the trial judge recommended he served a minimum of 35 years in jail.

The Search for Peace
But - under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement - he became eligible for early release after serving only about a third of his sentence.

Magee made no comment as he left the Maze Prison in Belfast. He was driven away along with six boxes of his possessions by a group of supporters.

Mr Blair's official spokesman admitted early prisoner releases were "certainly the most unpalatable and awkward part" of Northern Ireland's peace process.

But the move was criticised by unionists and Conservative MPs.

David Trimble, Northern Ireland's First Minister designate, said: "It now seems that the victims are the only people who are serving a life sentence."

[ image: The Brighton bomb killed five people and injured 34]
The Brighton bomb killed five people and injured 34
Conservatives urged Mr Blair to stop all early paramilitary prisoner releases until terrorists hand in weapons.

Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Andrew MacKay told the BBC: "If we halted the prisoner releases it would concentrate the minds of the paramilitaries, both the loyalists and the republicans.

"What they want most, to quote them, is to get the boys out of the Maze. If the boys stop coming out of the Maze, you'd be very surprised at how there could be a change in attitudes in Northern Ireland - less violence and a start to decommissioning."

Andrew MacKay: The government has got to stop appeasing the terrorists
"I believe the current policy is coming very close to appeasement and if we're not careful we're going to end up with every terrorist back on the streets, no weapons handed in whatsoever and no progress being made."

Former Home Secretary Michael Howard said Magee's release was a "disgrace".

[ image:  ]
And Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe said Magee should have served the recommended sentence.

But one of Magee's supporters, veteran republican Martin Meehan, told reporters at the Maze the bomber's 14 years in jail constituted a severe punishment and condemned the Tory outcry.

"It is hypocritical because British soldiers have been released after a very short time on life sentence. And not one RUC man has been prosecuted for shoot-to-kill or collusion."

Release date was challenged

Magee was sentenced in 1986. He was transferred from Britain to the Maze jail in Northern Ireland in September l994, just after the start of the first IRA ceasefire.

[ image: Patrick Magee leaves the Maze]
Patrick Magee leaves the Maze
His release date was challenged in March by Home Secretary Jack Straw. But an initial ruling by the Independent Sentence Review Commission, which decides if paramilitaries should be released, was upheld.

The prime minister's official spokesman on Tuesday said the release of Magee proved the independence of the commission.

Early prisoner releases were "certainly the most unpalatable and awkward part of the agreement" but had to be viewed as part of the entire peace process.

Magee is the 277th prisoner to be given early release, with up to 500 inmates due for release by July 2000.

Harvey Thomas, former Conservative director of presentation, who was caught in the Brighton blast, said people must be prepared to forgive.

"I take the view now that if the law says he has served his time, then, in a sense, that should be an end of it, unless he commits some other crime," he said.

The manager of Brighton's Grand Hotel also said he would be prepared to forgive and forget, even going so far as to say he would be happy to have Magee stay as a paying guest.

"When there's a tragedy one always has to look to the future," Richard Baker said.

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