Six inmates, three republicans and three loyalists, walked out of the Maze prison, County Antrim, into a bleak rain, celebrations from their family and supporters, and condemnation from groups representing victims. A seventh man, convicted of manslaughter, was freed from Magilligan jail, in County Londonderry, but his crime was not terrorist-related.
The freed prisoners, members of the provisional IRA and the Ulster Defence Association were serving sentences of between five and 22 years. The three Republicans - Louis McNally, Patrick McGuigan and Gerry Magee - were greeted with hand-claps and cheers by about 30 flag-waving supporters from Saoirse, a nationalist pressure-group campaigning for "political prisoners", when they appeared just after midday.
Half an hour earlier the three loyalists - Mathew McCormick, Gary Hall and Daniel Annesley - had slipped out initially unnoticed by photographers and cameramen who had been distracted by an altercation between Sinn Fein supporters and the heavily-built man who appeared to be tired and emotional.
McNally, 54, from Tyrone is said to be a veteran of the IRA. In December, 1990, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison on charges of conspiracy to murder. He was convicted of leading a team which had attempted to blow up a bus full of soldiers returning to their barracks at Antrim Town.
The attack is believed to have been a response to the killing of eight IRA men by the security forces including the SAS, at Loughall. McNally, according to police sources, had also been suspected of involvement in a number of killings, but never charged. Magee, 33 from Antrim was convicted of the same offence and sentenced to 20 years.
Patrick McGuigan, 27, from the markets area of Belfast was convicted of grevious bodily harm in December, 1995, and sentenced to 12 years. The man attacked, Hugh McCartan, is believed to have been the victim of a punishment beating.
While in prison, McGuigan took up body building, and gained the qualification in physical education. As he was led to a car after his release, his father John, 56, said his son had used his time in prison "to work out and get himself a good physique. He does not drink, and wants to get a job as a PE teacher".
Mr McGuigan added: "This is a great beginning, but we would like to see all the others get out. It's a shame no one from the PUP [Progressive Unionist Party - the political wing of the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force] has been freed today."
Magee said in Gaelic that it was wonderful to be out, but he refused to say anything else, stating he had been instructed to remain silent. When he put his thumbs up to a group of friends it was firmly pulled down by a Sinn Fein official. It is believed that party does not want the releases to be "triumphalist" in any way.
Among the loyalists to be freed Gary Hall, 28, was jailed for 14 years in October 1993 on charges of attempted murder in relation to a sectarian shooting at White Abbey in County Antrim.
Mathew McCormick, 31, was convicted of conspiracy to murder persons unknown and sentenced to 14 years in May 1993. His arrest followed stopping of a car by police in July 1992. Daniel Annesley was sentenced to five years on charges of blackmail, of which he has served two years and three months.
All the prisoners freed yesterday would have been eligible for release under Northern Ireland's penal system, without the conditions of the peace agreement, within the next 12 months.Reuse content