Two British Prisoners Paroled
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Two British soldiers convicted of murdering an unarmed Catholic teen-ager have become the first life-sentence prisoners paroled from a Northern Ireland prison in response to the peace accord.
Britain’s governor for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, today ordered immediate freedom for Scots Guardsmen Jim Fisher, 30, and Mark Wright, 25, from Maghaberry prison west of Belfast.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’ call for political violence in Northern Ireland to become ``a thing of the past″ received a broad welcome from the British and Irish governments, as well as from President Clinton.
Adams’ statement before Clinton’s arrival here Thursday marked another step away from the Irish Republican Army’s once unshakable determination to bomb and shoot until Northern Ireland was abolished.
Instead, Adams’ IRA-allied political party now is angling to help govern the 77-year-old state alongside British Protestant politicians.
``We have to work politically to make the Omagh bombing the last violent incident in our country,″ Adams said Tuesday, referring to the car bomb detonated Aug. 15 by IRA dissidents that killed 28 people.
In reaching her decision on the prison releases today, Mowlam emphasized that many convicted members of the IRA and pro-British paramilitary groups ``engaged in terrorism″ were expected to be freed starting next Monday. That provision is the most controversial aspect of April’s peace agreement.
``The Guardsmen were in Northern Ireland as a consequence of that terrorism and committed the offense while on duty to counter it,″ Mowlam said in drawing a distinction between their case and the others.
In 1995, when Britain last announced an exceptional parole for a soldier convicted of murder in Northern Ireland, it sparked three nights of rioting in many working-class Catholic areas.
But the political landscape has changed dramatically since then, partly because of the agreement’s promise to free up to 420 convicted members of truce-observing paramilitary groups. The Irish government has already freed more than a dozen IRA prisoners early.
Relatives of the two soldiers and the many British lawmakers and retired army personnel who had campaigned for their early parole were ecstatic. Mowlam phoned the two prisoners’ mothers in Scotland before announcing her decision.
``We’re absolutely delighted. I’m stunned. I haven’t come to terms with it,″ said Fisher’s sister Angela.
But relatives of Peter McBride, the 18-year-old civilian shot fatally in the back by the soldiers six years ago in north Belfast, were furious.
``Mo Mowlam told my mammy that they would not be the first two through the (prison) gate and they were,″ said McBride’s sister Roisin, noting that Friday will be the sixth anniversary of her brother’s murder.
Wright and Fisher were arrested almost immediately after shooting McBride when he ran away from their foot patrol. The soldiers claimed he was about to throw a homemade grenade at them, but he was unarmed.
Earlier this year, the two soldiers were moved into their own building within Maghaberry prison after receiving death threats from prisoners from hard-line Catholic areas of Belfast.
The army had allowed the two paid leave during their incarceration and they will be eligible to resume duties in the Scots Guards.
``They’re still in the army, two murderers,″ Roisin McBride said. ``I’m totally disgusted.″
Since the September 1992 shooting of McBride, the British army _ responsible for killing about 300 people in Northern Ireland since being deployed as peacekeepers in 1969 _ has committed no other fatal shootings of civilians in Northern Ireland.