Sir Patrick Mayhew's move yesterday, in increasing remission for some prisoners from one-third to one-half, was dismissed by Sinn Fein and regarded as disappointing by prison reform groups.
On the loyalist side, however, opinion was split between Unionist politicians who characterised it as capitulation to the IRA and those close to loyalist paramilitary groups, who welcomed it as what they hoped was a first step.
An examination of the numbers involved sheds light on how a development described by Sir Patrick as "significant and real" can be described by republicans as "extremely disappointing".
The move will affect only 400 of the approximately 1,000 inmates sentenced for terrorist-type offences. This is because about 250 of those being held are serving indeterminate life sentences, and are released through a separate process in which Sir Patrick has the final say.
A further 350 prisoners were already entitled to the one-half remission rate, since they were sentenced before the one-third rate was imposed in 1989. The operation of the one-half remission will not come into effect until a Bill has passed through Parliament and become law, and it is not certain whether this will happen before the end of the year. The change means that a republican prisoner jailed for 10 years can expect to be behind bars for five years rather than six years and eight months.
Once the law goes through, the Northern Ireland Office estimates that between 70 and 80 paramilitary prisoners, roughly half-and-half republicans and loyalists, will be released immediately.
A further 40 or 50 prisoners would benefit in the following 12 months. The early releases would then tail off, though the NIO says that by the year 2005 some 370 prisoners will have benefited.
Republicans, however, view the move from a completely different perspective. Sinn Fein yesterday said that under the new arrangements, two-thirds of the 500 republican prisoners would still be in jail in the year 2000. The party said that by 2000, only 40 republicans who would not in any case have been released could expect to be freed. NIO sources did not dispute these figures.
Although Sir Patrick did not voice it yesterday, the possibility obviously exists that the authorities will take further steps in the months and years ahead to speed releases, either by further remission increases or by other devices.
Another possibility - which he did hint at - is an increase in the rate of release of life prisoners. Sir Patrick has the discretion to free these at any time. He used this last month to set free Private Lee Clegg, the paratrooper who had been convicted of murder.
More than half of those sentenced to life have already been released into the community: while 250 remain inside, around 300 have been set free on licence over the past decade. Sir Patrick will now come under pressure from republicans and others to accelerate this process.Reuse content