His release, after serving two years of a life sentence for shooting Karen Reilly, delighted his supporters, outraged the nationalist community in Northern Ireland and produced a chill in relations between London and Dublin amid fears that the peace process might be damaged.
Within hours of his release vehicles were set on fire in Belfast, a driver was beaten up by masked men claiming to be from the IRA, and rioting spread to Londonderry.
The decision to free Clegg on licence was taken by Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on the grounds that he had served enough of his sentence for penal purposes and does not represent a danger to the public.
Clegg, of the Parachute Regiment, was convicted of murdering Miss Reilly, 18, who was a passenger in a stolen car that drove through an Army checkpoint in Belfast in 1990. Troops fired at the vehicle killing both her and the driver, Martin Peake, 17. At Clegg's trial in 1993 the judge found that the first three shots he had fired were to protect a fellow soldier but that the fourth, which killed Miss Reilly, was an excessive use of force because the car and with it the danger had passed.
Clegg, who was in custody for two years before the trial, lost his appeals but a vigorous campaign for his release was supported by a 2 million- signature petition. The case led to calls for an overhaul of the law on murder and an end to mandatory life sentences. In March Sir Patrick referred his case to the Northern Ireland Life Sentence Review Board in view of the "exceptional mitigating" circum- stances. The board recommended his release by a 10-2 majority but one of its members, Briege Gadd, resigned in protest at the decision to free him.
Clegg said yesterday: "I am delighted to be out of prison at last. I am very happy to have returned to duty this morning." His future will be decided by the Army Board but there is little doubt that he will be allowed to resume service as a soldier.
Simon McKay, Clegg's solicitor, said he would be going back to the courts with new evidence to seek an acquittal. He added: "His thoughts are again with Karen Reilly's family at what must be a very difficult time for them. He doesn't want it to be seen in any way as a triumph."
There was an angry reaction in Northern Ireland. Sean Reilly, Miss Reilly's father, said: "He's got away with murder, trampled on Karen's memory. It's very sad. They made special rules for him because he wore a para's uniform."
Dr Joe Hendron, SDLP MP for West Belfast, where the shooting took place, said: "The people are very, very angry and I am speaking as someone who has opposed the IRA and all paramilitaries for 25 years."
Mitchel McLaughlin, northern chairman of Sinn Fein, said: "It has the most serious implications possible for the peace process." He claimed the release had been timed to coincide with the Tory leadership election.
John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, underlined the concern in Dublin that the peace process could be at risk unless IRA prisoners were given similar treatment. Britain says there will have to be further evidence that those sentenced to life for terrorist offences will not reoffend.
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