Most prisoners out by 2000

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ONE of the most remarkable features of the new agreement is that, if all goes well, it envisages the releases of IRA and loyalist prisoners in a little over two years. Though the document does not use the word, it appears to amount to an amnesty.

The authorities hope the prospect of release will help sell the agreement, particularly in hardline areas where prisoners' families are concentrated.

Both republican and loyalist groups have been adamant that no settlement is conceivable which does not include early release. One republican said recently: "The idea of us taking part in any new institution with the prisoners still inside is ludicrous. We would be acting as jailers."

Prisoners have played an important, sometimes pivotal, role in the course of the conflict. In the Maze prison both republicans and loyalists have formed communities which have often affected events on the outside.

The document commits the British and Irish governments to setting release dates for all prisoners affiliated to groups which are on ceasefire. Should circumstances allow it, any prisoners still in custody two years after the scheme begins would be released then. Those not on ceasefire, such as the Loyalist Volunteer Force and Irish National Liberation Army, will not benefit.

The scheme was welcomed yesterday by relatives of loyalist prisoners who cheered David Trimble in Belfast city centre.