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20 February 2015
The Good Friday Agreement

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Policing and Justice
Prisoners
     
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Image of republican slogan demanding release of all political prisoners
Republican slogan demanding release of all political prisoners

The Good Friday Agreement provided a programme for the accelerated release of republican and loyalist prisoners. To be eligible they had to be affiliated to paramilitary organisations that had established, and maintained, "a complete and unequivocal cease-fire". The Agreement stated that if security circumstances permitted then "any qualifying prisoners who remained in custody two years after the commencement of the scheme would be released at that point".

Each case was assessed on an individual basis by the Sentence Review Commission established by the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 and co-chaired by Brian Currin, a South African human rights lawyer and Sir John Blelloch, a retired senior NIO civil servant. The Agreement allowed for up to 500 loyalist and republican prisoners sentenced before the Agreement to be released by 28 July 2000. Prisoners sentenced to five or more years in prison would serve only one third of their sentence. Prisoners sentenced to life would serve terms compatible with a prisoner not sentenced to terrorist-related crimes minus one-third.

 
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Key Academic Opinions
Criteria for early release
     
The commitment to the early release of prisoners provoked moral outrage. Many people, especially those in the unionist community, found this part of the Agreement repugnant. This moral outrage was compounded by the failure of the five-paragraph section on the release of prisoners to mention victims. However, the Agreement did note in the section Reconciliation and Victims of Violence that it was "essential to acknowledge and address the suffering of the victims of violence as a necessary element of reconciliation".  
Key Newspaper Articles
Unionists unprepared for prisoner releases
Relatives of victims react with anger
One version for Dublin and another for Belfast
     
The paramilitary organisations and their support communities considered themselves to be participating in a just war and not in criminality. Republicans saw themselves as an army of resistance against British colonial rule and the loyalists believed they were fighting to defend their British identity. Both sets of paramilitaries resisted British Government attempts to criminalise them.

Yet despite the moral objections it was clear from the start of the peace process that prisoner release would have to be part of the negotiated settlement. Republican and Loyalist paramilitary organisations had prisoner releases at the top of their political agenda and the political parties allied with them argued during the multi-party negotiations that prisoner release was essential if the peace process was to work.

 
Key Academic Opinions
Early release turned stomachs
     
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