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Published: 2583 days

The British government has freed six convicted IRA and pro-British - the first paramilitary inmates to win parole under the Northern Ireland peace accord.

Three members of the outlawed Ulster Defence Association, the largest paramilitary group rooted in hard-line Protestant areas, were the first to walk free from the high-security Maze prison southwest of Belfast.

Their release was followed by that of three members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

A seventh prisoner in Northern Ireland's Magilligan prison also was released, even though he did not belong to any paramilitary organisation.

Members of the pressure group for prisoners SAOIRSE were outside the Maze prison to greet the released republican prisoners.

Their spokesman Martin Meahan said they were pleased that the release process had started.

But he stressed his group had only showed up to give the released prisoners a dignified welcome home.

SOUNDBITE: (English)
"We are not here to show triumphalism, we're just here to dignify a welcome home for our prisoners who have been incarcerated for many a long year and we just want to have a dignified sort of welcome home for them."
SUPER CAPTION: Martin Meahan, spokesman for SAOIRSE

Greeting the freed prisoners were senior members of the I-R-A-allied Sinn Fein party, including Gerry Kelly and Brendan McFarland, who led the 1983 mass escape from the high-security Maze prison.

Kelly - the Old Bailey bomber - is now a Northern Ireland assembly member for Sinn Fein.

SOUNDBITE: (English)
"Prisoners and the release of prisoners is very central to the Good Friday Agreement and was negotiated as part of it and it is very central to it. I think that in terms of the peace process we need a momentum to keep on moving - it is going in the right direction but we need to keep that momentum going"
SUPER CAPTION: Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein Spokesman

The three members of the Irish Republican Army (I-R-A) left the prison through a flock of reporters and television crews.

The first prisoner to enter freedom was Steven Patrick McGuigan who was serving 12 years for gross bodily harm.

He was followed shortly after by Luis McNalley who was midway through a 22-year sentence for conspiracy to murder

The last I-R-A prisoner to be released was Gerard McGee who had received a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to murder.

Earlier in the day, three U-D-A members had walked free through the same gates of the Maze prison.

Dan Annesley, Matt McCormick and Gary Hall all covered their faces as they walked a gantlet of reporters and television crews.

Hall had served six years of a 14-year sentence for trying to kill a Catholic couple in north Belfast in 1992.

McCormick had served six years of a 14-year sentence for conspiring to kill a Catholic.

Annesley had served two years of a five-year sentence for extorting protection money from businessmen.

A seventh prisoner in Northern Ireland's Magilligan prison also was released Friday under the umbrella of the agreement, even though he did not belong to any paramilitary organisation.

He had been serving seven years for manslaughter.

Last April's agreement promised that more than four hundred imprisoned members of the I-R-A, The Ulster Defence Association and another pro-British paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force (U-V-F), would be freed by mid -2000 in recognition of their truces.

The I-R-A formally stopped its campaign to abolish Northern Ireland and its British links in July 1997.

The U-D-A and U-V-F - equally committed to maintaining Northern Ireland as a Protestant-majority state - have observed a joint ceasefire since October 1994.

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