Peace Process: Relief and anger greet release of guardsmen

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The Independent Online
THE EARLY release of two Scots Guardsmen jailed for shooting dead an Irish teenager was greeted yesterday with relief and joy by their families and supporters. But the angry family of the unarmed Catholic they killed accused Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, of lying to them.

Those campaigning to free James Fisher and Mark Wright declared that an injustice had been corrected. Relations of Peter McBride, the 18-year- old they shot dead in Belfast, bitterly countered that justice had, in reality, been sacrificed for cynical political expediency .

Mr McBride's family also expressed their anger that the convicted guardsmen have been allowed to stay in the Army "and get their guns back". They said they would be taking legal advice over this, and that they and their friends intended to picket whichever barracks the soldiers are based at in the future.

Ms Mowlam said she would be pressing for Fisher and Wright to be discharged from the Army. However her ministry acknowledged the decision would be up to the Ministry of Defence. Private Lee Clegg, who was freed after shooting dead a teenage joyrider, continued with his army career, and was subsequently promoted.

After their early morning release from Maghaberry prison, in County Antrim, the two guardsmen arrived at an army base in Catterick, Yorkshire, for a photo-call. They refused to answer any questions or even say their names. Others, however, had plenty to say about the circumstances of their release.

There was little pretence among government officials in Belfast that the freeing of the two was divorced from the broader political picture. MsMowlam authorised the move at a time of considerable trepidation among Unionists about the imminent release of paramilitary prisoners. The release of the two guardsmen, it has been felt, would help to counter that.

The development also comes as the IRA takes the first steps towards possible decommissioning, and on the eve of President Bill Clinton's visit to Northern Ireland.

Two pressure groups representing families with members killed by the security forces are expected to meet the President, and have stated that they intend to raise the issue of the two guardsmen. They would like to arrange a meeting between Mr Clinton and the McBrides.

Wright, 25, from Arbroath, and Fisher, 30, from Ayrshire, killed Mr McBride, who has two children, in the republican New Lodge area of Belfast in September l992. They were convicted in l994 and sentenced to life imprisonment a year later.

Fisher's sister, Angela, said that Ms Mowlam had phoned that morning to break the news. She said: "We are absolutely delighted ... we hope to see Jim soon."

Ms Mowlam had also called the McBride family and received a very different reaction. Peter McBride's father, also called Peter, accused her of "lying" and said that they considered her action to be "disgraceful and sickening".

Mr McBride said Ms Mowlam had assured his family six weeks ago that she would let them know before a decision was made over the soldiers' release. She called Peter's mother on Tuesday night to say a decision was due very soon. Next morning the McBrides heard the soldiers were free.

Mr McBride spoke to Ms Mowlam after hearing the news, he stated later: "I told her I was disgusted at how insensitive she was because these two are getting out just two days before the anniversary of Peter's death. Is it because Bill Clinton is coming here? Is it because of the statement by Gerry Adams?"

Explaining her decision to free the two men Ms Mowlam said she was mindful that the soldiers were on duty trying to counter terrorism at the time of the shooting, and that the first terrorist prisoners are to be freed.

Mr McBride was shot when he ran away after being stopped by an army patrol. He had a record of petty criminality but no political or terrorist involvement. Fisher and Wright chased him and opened fire, because, they claimed, they they thought the plastic bag he carried contained a nail bomb.

Lord Justice Kelly, sitting without a jury, found the two soldiers guilty at their trial in l994, but reserved judgment pending the outcome of the ruling by the Law Lords in the case of Lee Clegg, who was jailed for life for the killing of the teenage girl in a stolen car. Private Clegg's appeal was rejected, and Justice Kelly sentenced the two guardsmen to life imprisonment in l995, but recommended that mandatory life sentences for murder should be abolished.

Two years later, retired officers from Wright and Fisher's regiment launched a well publicised campaign for their release and obtained the support of several MPs and public figures. The campaign did not challenge the convictions, but held that Mr McBride was the victim of a " tragic error of judgement" and the two soldiers had spent long enough in jail.

Martin Bell, the independent MP for Tatton who had been campaigning on behalf of the guardsmen, said yesterday: "This was long overdue, but we are very pleased ... It was never just that they should have been tried and convicted as though they were common murderers or terrorists."

George Foulkes, the international development minister and James Fisher's MP, declared: "I welcome the decision by Mo Mowlam, I believe it is the right one, and the one I have asked her to make. I do understand the feelings of the McBride family, but those feelings are shared by the families of the victims of the terrorists who are being released under the peace process."

Lord Tebbit, the former Tory cabinet minister, who also backed the release campaign, called for compensation to be paid to the soldiers. He said: "The task now is to ensure their convictions are quashed, that they are fully rehabilitated and compensated."