slogan demanding release of all political prisoners
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".
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.
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".
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
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.