Releasing these killers is a sordid, but necessary, part of the peace process

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It is understandable that the release from the Maze prison yesterday of Michael Stone, the loyalist gunman who opened fire and killed three at a funeral in 1988, leaves many feeling a sense of revulsion. Stone's moment of triumph seemed to call into question everything that the peace process stands for. In effect: if somebody commits vile murder, he need only wait for a peace process to come along, whereupon he can be enveloped in congratulatory hugs by his friends and supporters - who appear to believe that killing innocent people is an acceptable way to behave. The relatives of those he killed, meanwhile, are doomed to live unhappily ever after.

It is understandable that the release from the Maze prison yesterday of Michael Stone, the loyalist gunman who opened fire and killed three at a funeral in 1988, leaves many feeling a sense of revulsion. Stone's moment of triumph seemed to call into question everything that the peace process stands for. In effect: if somebody commits vile murder, he need only wait for a peace process to come along, whereupon he can be enveloped in congratulatory hugs by his friends and supporters - who appear to believe that killing innocent people is an acceptable way to behave. The relatives of those he killed, meanwhile, are doomed to live unhappily ever after.

Although one of Stone's friends yesterday declared that he and other loyalist prisoners "continue to support the present peace process", the reality is that we have heard few regrets from Stone about his previous record. Instead, it seems as though the judicial slate can simply be wiped clean. Stone, a former commander of the bloodthirsty Ulster Freedom Fighters, is by no means an isolated case. Some of those already released are the lowest of the low; as are some in this week's final batch of releases from the Maze, with its famous H-blocks, when it closes on Friday. They include men like Torrens Knight, who killed three innocent Catholics in a pub in the notorious Greysteel massacre.

At least those killings can somehow be seen as "historical". That does not apply to the case of Bernard McGinn, convicted of killing the last British soldier to die in Northern Ireland, Stephen Restorick. The 23-year-old Restorick was shot in cold blood at a checkpoint in South Armagh in 1997, even while a peace deal was already in the offing; McGinn was convicted after the Good Friday peace agreement, and yet is now eligible for release.

But all of these sordid releases - and they are sordid, we should not dodge that fact - only remind us just how tortuous the peace process is. It seems to be an offence against natural justice that Stone, Knight, McGinn and others like them are allowed to walk free, as though nothing untoward had happened. In human terms, not least for the relatives, it is an extraordinarily bitter pill to swallow.

None the less, it is also in the larger interest of peace and justice for all. Only through such painful steps does it become possible to contemplate long-term peace.

The leniency of recent years must, however, be matched by a toughness from now on. Blind-eye justice, where the need for peace in the community means that evil men are allowed back on to the streets, served a useful purpose. Now, however, it is equally importantthat this necessary but sleazy form of justice be left behind. Any political violence, including the continued epidemic of kneecapping, must be harshly punished. The violent antics at Drumcree of Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair (another loyalist prisoner released from the Maze) themselves appear to justify his re-arrest. There is no more room for the use of kid gloves.

The Good Friday agreement allowed abnormality in search of a new normality. Now, however, the IRA has shown itself ready to take the gun out of politics; so, too, have Protestant groups formerly associated with terrorism. In other words, there are no political excuses left. For the first time, crimes can be treated as crimes. These releases must be a prelude to something new for Ulster: fearlessly apolitical justice.

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