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The search for peace
Prisoner Release
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Prisoner Release
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Prisoner Release

Brighton bomber Patrick Magee at his release June 1999

One of the most controversial parts of the Good Friday Agreement was the decision to grant early release to certain paramilitary prisoners.

Up to 500 loyalist and republican prisoners sentenced before the Agreement are expected to be released before the scheme's cut-off date which is currently set for July 2000. Prisoners sentenced to five or more years in prison will serve only one third of their sentence. Prisoners sentenced to life will serve terms comparable to a prisoner not sentenced to terrorist-related crimes minus one-third.

Four paramilitary groups, the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA, the Red Hand Defenders and the Orange Volunteers, are not eligible for the prisoner release scheme because they were not on ceasefire at the time of the Agreement.

The releases were a radical gesture designed to win the support of the broader republican and loyalist communities for the Good Friday Agreement. But politicians and victims' families are having a hard time accepting the arrangement, as known killers such as Patrick Magee, the man responsible for the 1984 Brighton bombing that killed five people at a Conservative Party conference, are set free.

On the day Magee was released, Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted the releases were "very hard to stomach". In early 1999, opposition leader William Hague called for the end of early releases because he said the spate of punishment beatings from both sides violated the Good Friday Agreement.

The public also is divided, as emails to BBC News Online's Talking Point have shown "Mr Blair should bear in mind that appeasement did not work for Mr Chamberlain," Jon Vincent of the UK wrote. "At the moment the peace process seems to be a cynical ploy for some of the participants."

But Jim Gulliford, also from the UK, said peace was the paramount concern. He wrote: "Without peace the senseless killing and maiming will go on. Peace can only be attained through compromise. At least by continuing with the release program, the UK government is showing signs of the two qualities which can bring an end to the Troubles: trust and goodwill. It is now time for the IRA to do likewise and down arms forever."

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