Leading Article: Releases must consider the victims' families

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in a world without God, who is to dispense forgiveness? Thomas McMahon murdered Lord Mountbatten and two teenage boys while on a fishing trip 19 years ago. This week he was let out of prison, the first of many for whom the Good Friday Agreement is a "Get Out Of Jail Free" card -free, that is, of remorse or reparation. Over the next few months, hundreds of prisoners will be released who have been convicted of more serious crimes than many left behind bars in the UK and the Irish Republic.

The legal and political system is not in the business of forgiveness. McMahon has not been let out because he has been absolved, but because it was for the greater good of the people of Northern Ireland and, to a lesser extent, of the other parts of the British Isles. As part of a difficult, morally compromised process of supporting the IRA's decision - not yet fully acknowledged - to turn away from terrorism, letting murderers out early is an unpleasant necessity. It should be supported with a heavy heart as the least unacceptable option.

But there is a danger in such a historic moment as this that we overlook what the Prime Minister might call the "small picture". For every murderer released, there is a family suffering loss. The release of Mountbatten's killer is a symbolic moment - in much the same way as Mountbatten himself was a symbolic target for the IRA - because Prince Charles's "Uncle Dickie" was a figurehead. But McMahon did not just kill a leading member of the Royal Family - sad though that was - he killed Paul Maxwell, a15-year- old boatman, as well.

What was important yesterday was not the predictable outcry of a minority of the press and a minority of Unionist politicians. It was the measured response of Paul's father, John Maxwell, who said that keeping McMahon in jail would not bring his son back: "Peace is the imperative now, and we must look forward so that perhaps Paul's death and those of thousands of others from both sides of the political divide here will not have been entirely in vain."

It was the same brave sentiment as shown by the families of so many other victims of terrorism. The strength to look up from the small picture of personal grief to the big picture of a more peaceful future.

But that small picture matters. If forgiveness has any meaning in modern secular society, then it must be a matter of personal reconciliation between criminals and the families of their victims. This may sound a little like an apology for the conventions of Islamic law, which allow the relatives of the victim to determine the sentence. We saw the defects of that - as a principle of jurisprudence - in the case of the British nurses in Saudi Arabia. But it is nevertheless the case that western legal systems have moved too far in the opposite direction, and one of Jack Straw's more promising ideas at the level of small-scale crime is that of confronting offenders with those who have suffered from their depredations.

This is an approach that should have been carried through to the Northern Ireland peace agreement. As well as filling in forms applying for release, prisoners should perhaps be writing statements addressed to the relatives of their victims expressing regret. That would seem to be at least as important as paper declarations of which organisations they are members and their personal repudiation of the use of violence for political ends. Instead, the only acknowledgement of the interests of the victims' families is that they will be "notified" when each prisoner is about to be set free.

A better understanding of the feelings of victims might help all of us come to terms with the inevitable injustices of the early release of prisoners. Thomas McMahon is not, perhaps, the hardest example: he has served 19 years and he repudiated the IRA before that could be seen as a passport to release. But there will be much harder cases to come. In order to prepare for them, Mo Mowlam should do two things. She should give the families of their victims more say. And she should make it absolutely clear that there will be no mercy for re-offenders. On those conditions, the releases should go ahead.