Prisoner Release: Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement

Strand Three: Prisoners

1. Both Governments will put in place mechanisms to provide for an accelerated programme for the release of prisoners, including transferred prisoners, convicted of scheduled offences in Northern Ireland or, in the case of those sentenced outside Northern Ireland, similar offences (referred to hereafter as qualifying prisoners). Any such arrangements will protect the rights of individual prisoners under national and international law.

2. Prisoners affiliated to organisations which have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire will not benefit from the arrangements. The situation in this regard will be kept under review.

3. Both Governments will complete a review process within a fixed time frame and set prospective release dates for all qualifying prisoners. The review process would provide for the advance of the release dates of qualifying prisoners while allowing account to be taken of the seriousness of the offences for which the person was convicted and the need to protect the community. In addition, the intention would be that should the circumstances allow it, any qualifying prisoners who remained in custody two years after the commencement of the scheme would be released at that point.

4. The Governments will seek to enact the appropriate legislation to give effect to these arrangements by the end of June 1998.

Implementation History

1998

Intermediate Implementation

As provided in the accord, British government introduced a bill to release prisoners and the bill had a second reading on 10 June 1998. The bill, Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, received Royal Assent on 28 July 1998. According to this bill, prisoners affiliated with paramilitary organizations that had established and maintained “a complete and unequivocal case-fire (Article 8 (a) and (b)) are eligible for release. The bill also established The Sentence Review Commission (Article 7) to assess cases on an individual basis.1 The Sentence Review Commission was co-chaired by a South African human rights lawyer, Brain Currin, and a retired senior NIO civil servant, Sir John Blelloch.2

On 30 July 1998, as required by the 1998 Act, the Secretary of State of Northern Ireland specified supporters of the Continuity Irish Republican Army, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, the Irish National Liberation Army, and the Real Irish Republican Army not eligible for release because they did not maintain a complete and unequivocal ceasefire. On 18 November 1998, the Loyalist Volunteer Force was removed from the list.3 It was estimated that between 400 and 420 paramilitary prisoners will be able to apply for early release.4 Prisoner release was a hotly contested issue in the peace process as the Unionists maintained that the release would take place along with disarmament.5 Nevertheless, as of October 1998, a total of 167 prisoners were released.6

1999

Intermediate Implementation

Prisoner release continued in 1999. During Christmas and New Year time, 131 prisoners were granted extended home leave. As of 16 December, 308 prisoners were released.7 evertheless, with the release of high profile prisoners, public support for prisoner release dropped, according to a Belfast Telegraph opinion poll.8

2000

Full Implementation

The final batch of prisoners was released on 28 July. A total of 428 pro-British Loyalist and pro-Irish Republican guerrillas were released early under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.9

2001

Full Implementation

The Sentence Review Commission continuously received applications for release of prisoners. 

2002

Full Implementation

The Sentence Review Commission continuously received applications for release of prisoners. 

2003

Full Implementation

The Sentence Review Commission continuously received applications for release of prisoners. 

2004

Full Implementation

The Sentence Review Commission continuously received applications for release of prisoners. 

2005

Full Implementation

The Sentence Review Commission continuously received applications for release of prisoners. 

2006

Full Implementation

The Sentence Review Commission continuously received applications for release of prisoners. 

2007

Full Implementation

The Sentence Review Commission continuously received applications for release of prisoners. Between 1998 and 2012, the commission received a total of 636 applications, of which 506 applications were granted release.10