Britain Frees Northern Irish Prisoners

ByABC News
July 28, 2000, 12:56 PM

B E L F A S T, Northern  Ireland, July 28 -- Scores of Northern Irelands most hardened guerrillas walked free today when Britain virtually emptied the notorious Maze prison to bolster the peace process in the province.

Leading guerrillas from both sides of Northern Irelands sectarian divide were among the 86 prisoners who were released, many having served only a small fraction of their sentences.

One was the Irish Republican Armys James McArdle, sentenced to 25 years over the devastating 1996 London Docklands bombing.

Another was IRA gunman Martin Mines, who famously shouted see you in 18 months! when sentenced only last year to 50 years for conspiracy to murder and possessing arms.

Also released were IRA snipers and bombers who killed British troops and pro-British guerrillas responsible for mass shootings targeting Catholics during the 30-year conflict known as the Troubles.

All qualified for early release from long sentences because their guerrilla groups support the 1998 Good Friday peace accord and are respecting cease-fires.

The Protestant loyalist prisoners stepped out of the Maze before the Catholic republican inmates in a choreographed operation to avoid any confrontation between the rival groups.

IRA Prisoners Unbroken

Jim McVeigh, a leader of the IRA inmates in the prison who had been serving 31 years for conspiracy to murder and possessing arms, issued a defiant statement after his release.

We walk free from this prison camp as have our comrades before us, proud republicans, unbowed and unbroken, he said.

On behalf of all republican prisoners, I would like to extend our solidarity and thanks to the IRA for their role in the struggle for freedom.

Gerry Kelly of the IRAs political ally Sinn Fein paid tribute to the likes of IRA icon Bobby Sands, who died in the Maze in 1981 while on hunger strike to protest the policies of Margaret Thatcher, then British prime minister.