The body set up to deal with prisoner release, one of the most contentious issues facing the settlement, said yesterday that if the paperwork was done quickly enough, some prisoners could be home within weeks.
"If the application forms come in next week, then we could be seeing prisoners released by the end of August," said Sir John Blelloch, joint chairman of the Sentence Review Commission.
"We are very conscious of the responsibility we bear in discharging our task and of its sensitivity in the community."
Sir John said that, as a result of this, the commission would be consulting victims' groups about the release procedure.
Under the terms of the agreement reached last April and approved by two referenda, 400 to 420 paramilitary prisoners from the IRA, UDA and UVF are eligible for release within two years.
The agreement said only paramilitaries whose organisations have announced ceasefires are eligible and there is a requirement to serve a third of their sentence.
The LVF, Continuity IRA, the Real IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army, which have not announced cease- fires, are excluded from the scheme.
While each application will be considered individually, it is expected that people to be released soon will include the Balcombe Street Gang, the Brighton bomber Patrick Magee, Milltown cemetery killer Michael Stone and Shankill Butcher William Moore. Ken Maginnis, security spokesman for the Ulster Unionists, said yesterday: "However unpalatable, the UUP will not back away from its commitment to the agreement."
However, he questioned whether a genuine ceasefire was in place and said that as such the Government should not go ahead with the release.
Glyn Roberts, development officer with the pressure group Families Against Intimidation and Terror (FAIT), said a number of victims were fearful about the release of people imprisoned for violence.
"The problem is that the paramilitaries have not stopped violence. There is still violence being committed in the form of beatings and killings," he said. "Under the terms of the agreement there could only be releases once the violence has ceased."
A spokesman for Sinn Fein said: "The Government has no choice over this. It was an integral part of the agreement which people voted to accept."
This point was accepted by the Government. A spokesman for the Northern Ireland office said: "[The release of prisoners] is part of the agreement. We cannot go cherry-picking. We are here to implement the agreement. If the groups who voted for it can live with it, then we can live with it."
Sources suggested that the first releases may only number around a dozen. "I don't think it will be a question of the floodgates opening," said the source.
Under the terms of legislation passed to allow the release to go ahead, prisoners will be released on licence and their release will be reviewed should the ceasefire be broken.Reuse content