Killers freed under Ulster agreement

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THE FIRST Northern Ireland prisoners serving life sentences for murder were freed yesterday as part of the Good Friday agreement's early release provisions.

Five men serving life for murder walked free from the Maze prison, near Belfast, under the scheme which is scheduled to see the jails practically emptied of paramilitary prisoners within the next two years.

Four were loyalists jailed for killing Catholic civilians while the fifth was an IRA prisoner who shot dead a police officer. All had served between 10 and 14 years in jail. Since the terms they served are close to the average for those jailed for murder, none could be said to have benefited spectacularly.

Yesterday's releases bring the total number of prisoners freed to 24 - a tally that is expected to rise to about 200 by Christmas. The releases drew only a muted political response yesterday, apparently indicating that the issue has lost some of its shock potential.

The release scheme was initially the most controversial element of the Good Friday agreement, with the public unprepared for the idea that the jails would be emptied as part of the new political settlement. Since then, however, it appears to have become accepted, with much reluctance, that such releases are inevitable.

The republican released yesterday was Damien Nicell, who was convicted of shooting dead an RUC officer, Clive Graham, at a police checkpoint in Londonderry in 1988.

Three of the four loyalists released are former soldiers. Mark Trotter and Robert Kenny from Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, were convicted of murdering Edward Love in 1985. Kenny was a private in the Ulster Defence Regiment, and Trotter, the son of a policeman, was a mechanic serving with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

Another former UDR soldier, Geoffrey Edwards, was sentenced for the murder of a Sinn Fein election worker, Peter Corrigan, in 1982. The fourth loyalist, Thomas Mair, was sentenced to life for the murder of William McLaughlin in north Belfast in 1984.

The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, is to meet Northern Ireland's First Minister, David Trimble, in Dublin next week to review political progress. Dublin is anxious to press ahead with the formation of an executive which would include Sinn Fein members, while Mr Trimble is pushing for IRA arms decommissioning in advance of such a move.

Mr Ahern said yesterday: "What we have to do is allow no single item be a stumbling block. I'm determined that we try to move the agenda in its totality forward."