For well over a decade prisoners have benefited from release schemes markedly more lenient from those in operation in Britain or indeed in the Irish Republic. The approach has caused very little political controversy, with almost all parties either openly or quietly in favour of it.
In the context of the Good Friday agreement, however, Protestants and Unionists questioned for opinions cite the proposed early release of prisoners as their main reason for intending to vote No in Friday's referendums.
The actual numbers involved have received little attention. The figures show that approximately 400 prisoners with paramilitary associations are likely to benefit from the proposed arrangements, to a greater or lesser degree.
Overall, no official figures are available for the numbers who have over the past three decades been to prison for paramilitary offences. A rough estimate, however, comes up with a figure of around 13,000 who have been behind bars.
A precise figure can be given for those who have been released after serving life sentences, almost all of which were imposed for murder. 408 lifers, half republicans and half loyalists, are now free after serving sentences varying from eleven years to 20 years. The lifers release scheme began in 1984 with the support of almost all parties, including that of the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, which takes greatest exception to the release proposals.
Over the years criticism of the system from the victims and their relatives has been muted and a majority of victims who have spoken publicly in recent weeks appear to be in favour of a Yes referendum vote.
The scheme is regarded as a success for a number of reasons, partly because instances of re-offending have been minimal, and partly because lifers were influential in bringing about the paramilitary ceasefires.
Among those released already have been most members of the infamous Shankhill Butchers gang, who in the 1970s were jailed for 19 murders, including a series of killings of Catholics killed with knives and cleavers.
One loyalist who has been released was actually sentenced to death in the early 1970's for the murder of a policeman. Among the republicans released are many jailed for killing soldiers and police officers.
This policy has been in striking contrast to penal policy in Britain, where the Thatcher government made it clear that those jailed for terrorist murders could expect to serve at least 20 years behind bars.
The Good Friday agreement sets out a programme to benefit those prisoners whose paramilitary organisations maintain a complete ceasefire. A new body will consider the cases of prisoners on an individual basis, with provisions to keep inside those judged to represent a continuing threat. The intention is that prisoners will receive a "discount" of one-third of the period they would have previously expected to serve.
Anyone still in custody in July 2000 would be released at that point, provided their organisations continue to observe ceasefires.
Releases are to be on licence, the authorities reserving the power to recall those who go back to terrorist activity.
Those who expect their freedom include some of the best-known republican and loyalist inmates of the Maze prison.
Similar arrangements will operate in the Irish Republic, where republican prisoners such as the Balcombe Street gang will be freed.Northern Ireland's jails were in any event emptying as longer-term prisoners reached the end of their sentences and the flow of convictions in the courts lessened as the general level of violence tailed off over the last four years.
The Maze prison presently holds 88 lifers and 232 serving other sentences, with a further 87 on remand. Of these, 19 lifers and 118 others would in any event be released by July 2000, which means they will benefit only marginally from the release scheme. Assuming there are no new convictions, only 16 prisoners would have remained inside by the year 2005.
Tomorrow, the reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary
Michael Stone is serving a life sentence for six murders and four attempted murders, his
attack on a republican funeral at Milltown in March 1988 got graphic and international coverage in the media. Last week he appeared at a rally supporting the Yes vote.
Patrick Magee was part of an IRA team which almost succeeded in assassinating Margaret Thatcher and other Cabinet ministers at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in October 1984. Five people died.
William Moore was one of the Shankill Butchers gang which carried out a series of sectarian murders, some of them involving sadistic torture. Moore pleaded guilty to 11 murders. He has been out of jail on day release, doing community service in Belfast.
Hugh Doherty and the Balcombe Street gang carried out about 50 bombings and shootings in the early 1970s and killed at least 16 people. Their jail sentences totalled more than 2,000 years. Last week, they appeared at the Sinn Fein meeting which endorsed the "yes" vote.
Thomas McErlean, one of the mourners, was killed in the attack. His mother Sally (above) was angry at seeing Stone at the rally in Ulster Hall. She said: "I don't think he feels any remorse. He killed my killed my son and killed other people. I certainly don't think he should be released."
Harvey Thomas, who was the organiser of the Tory party conference that year, survived the blast without serious injuries despite being thrown up to the ceiling back down again. Mr Thomas said Magee should serve his time for all the pain and suffering he had caused.
Cornelius Neeson, a 49-year-old bingo-caller, was attacked by the Shankhill butchers. One of the gang, scouting for a Catholic victim, struck Mr Neeson with a hatchet and then hit him repeatedly. William Moore then kicked him viciously about the head, face and upper body.
Gordon Hamilton-Fairley, a cancer specialist, was killed in October 1975. His daughter Dr Diana Hamilton-Fairley is campaigning for a yes vote. She said: "People in Northern Ireland must find a way to live in peace and I believe the peace agreement must be supported with a resounding yes."Reuse content