125 prisoners leave Maze jail for Christmas

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The Independent Online
THE TOP-SECURITY Maze prison was all but empty yesterday after every convicted terrorist inmate was given parole for Christmas.

A total of 125 republicans and loyalists serving sentences for killings, bombings and firearms offences walked freely through the open gates to be met by relatives and friends.

Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, decided all convicted terrorists in the jail near Belfast should be let out - not just those eligible - because of the climate of optimism and goodwill created in Northern Ireland by devolution. The freed inmates will have 12 days to spend with their families over Christmas and the millennium before returning.

When they get back, none of them should have long to wait for permanent freedom. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement all will be freed by July next year provided their various organisations maintain their ceasefires.

From early morning, the prisoners were let out in batches to ensure there was no confrontation between rival republican or loyalist groups and the release programme went without a hitch.

One of the first out was Sean Kelly, the IRA bomber who killed nine people in the Shankill Road fish shop attack in 1993. He was greeted at the gates with a hug from his mother and bundled into the back of a car which sped off, wheels spinning.

A little later, Michael Stone emerged. He was jailed for the 1988 gun and grenade attack that killed three mourners at the Belfast funeral of three IRA members shot by the SAS in Gibraltar. He was greeted by supporters who chanted "Michael is our hero" and was driven away in a BMW.

One of the last to leave was James McArdle, the IRA man serving 25 years for the London Docklands bombing that ended the last ceasefire in 1996. He was accompanied by three others from South Armagh who plotted and executed the sniper murder of Lance-Bombardier Stephen Restorick, the last British soldier to be murdered by the IRA, months before the ceasefire was reinstated in 1997.

The inmates carried their belongings in an array of brown paper sacks or cardboard boxes. A handful left the jail carrying caged budgies and canaries they keep in their cells.

Five Loyalist Volunteer Force prisoners on remand awaiting trial will remain in the Maze over the holiday, guarded by a skeleton staff of 50 prison officers. Across Northern Ireland, some 335 prisoners and young offenders were released from jails and detention centres for Christmas with their families and friends.

Mr Mandelson said he had decided to release the prisoners "in recognition of the remarkable political progress which has been made over recent weeks, and as a confidence-building gesture by the British Government".

Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionists' security spokesman, said that while a prisoner release was hard to swallow, he was prepared to accept it.

"While it is irksome, if it is the price we have to pay, this is a small element we have to live with," he said. "I'm glad I'm not walking behind coffins and long may that last. We want to ensure that is a permanent state of affairs."

But Families Acting for Innocent Relatives, a victims' group, was furious about the releases. William Frazer, the group's spokesman, said: "These prisoners have been freed to spend Christmas with their families. Their victims and the relatives who have suffered have empty spaces at our tables."