Those who were given 10-day parole yesterday included Sean Kelly, the IRA prisoner whose bomb killed both Michelle Williamson's parents. Kelly slipped away, avoiding Ms Williamson, who later said: "Kelly is an even bigger murdering coward than I thought he was."
The incident illustrated the sensitivity over prisoner releases, which form part of the Good Friday Agreement. More than 200 permanent releases have already taken place under the agreement.
Yesterday it was the usual Christmas paroles. Those released were associated with some of the most notorious incidents and darkest days of violence of the Troubles.
Sean Kelly, for example, was himself almost killed in the Shankill Road fish shop attack in 1993, when an IRA bomb detonated prematurely, killing a colleague and nine Protestant civilians. Other IRA prisoners on parole include Patrick Magee - or the "Brighton bomber" - who was jailed for the 1984 bomb in the Grand Hotel which killed five people attending the Conservative Party's annual conference.
On the loyalist side, those who will spending Christmas at home include Michael Stone, the Ulster Defence Association gunman who killed three people attending a republican funeral in Belfast in 1988, and Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair. Adair, who was regarded as the head of the UDA's assassination squads, was the IRA's target in the Shankill Road bombing.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, all prisoners affiliated to the major paramilitary groups can expect permanent release by mid-2000. While technically they can be recalled to prison at any time, this is considered unlikely except if there is a return to wholesale violence or if they are seen to become involved again in terrorist activity.
Unionist critics of the agreement, together with the Conservative Party, have called for a halt to releases unless the IRA begins to decommission weapons. The Government's position, however, is that the releases were specified in the agreement and have since been endorsed in the referendum.
The Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, said yesterday: "It's not easy to go through the kind of changes that are taking place as a result of the agreement. The accelerated release of prisoners is tough, not just for those with families or friends who have been murdered, but I think it's bitter for everybody, a bitter pill to swallow."
Opposition to the releases has also come from police representatives on both sides of the border. In the republic, four men convicted of killing members of the Gardai have been freed - under protest.
As part of the conditions for releases in the north, all prisoners must not make any public comment, appear at any demonstration or involve themselves in any sort of behaviour which could cause distress to victims or victims' relatives.Reuse content