Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, 430 Republican and Loyalist prisoners jailed in the notorious “H blocks” have been released as the Maze Prison prepares to close. Only a handful remain who have been ruled ineligible for release because the organizations they belong to are not on the verifiable ceasefire list. These include members of the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA, the Orange Volunteers, and the Red Hand Defenders.
The early prisoner release program was the result of intense pressure from Republicans during the all-party talks, but it has benefited both Republican and Loyalist prisoners. The release of Loyalist killer Michael Stone in July caused anger in the Nationalist community. A self-described “freelance” Loyalist, choosing no specific group, Stone served only 12 years of a 30-year sentence for murdering six Catholics.
A cult figure among Loyalists, Stone was captured on television throwing grenades and firing at mourners during the funeral of three Republicans at Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery in March 1988. Three of his victims were killed in that attack.
The release of IRA volunteer Sean Kelly provoked a similar reaction among Unionists. His comrade Thomas Begley and nine Protestant civilians were killed in 1993 when a bomb intended to kill the ruling Inner Council of the Loyalist Ulster Defense Association exploded prematurely.
Among the prisoners who still remain are three members of the Irish National Liberation Army sentenced for killing Loyalist Volunteer Force leader Billy “King Rat” Wright in the prison in 1997. Their release is planned for October.
The early prisoner release program is one of the most contentious aspects of the peace process. However, Sinn Féin Assembly member Gerry Kelly, a former prisoner, spoke out against the program’s critics: “This will be my last visit into a prison which impacted so much on my life and that of my family. I saw many friends die in this prison and others locked up behind its walls for many years. Scores of these were victims of miscarriages of justice. Thousands of POWs and their families have passed through these gates. I for one will not mourn its passing.” ♦