Jailed Loyalists and Republicans were freed from prison today, as the final wave of prisoner releases got underway in Northern Ireland. 78 prisoners were freed from the Maze prison. First out were 8 members of the UVF, followed by a group of the UDA/UFF men the LVF and the INLA. 46 members of the Provisional IRA were the last due to be freed.

The Progressive Unionist Party Prisons' Spokesman, William Smyth, said that it was a historic day, as they witnessed the imminent closure of what he said was an infamous prison camp. He said that they acknowledged the release of prisoners would not be welcomed by every one and they understood and sympathised with that view. He said it was not their intention to glorify the occasion, and the eight men were driven away at speed in a convoy.

A total of just 14 prisoners convicted of terrorist-related offences will remain in custody in the North, serving out the minimum two-year sentence necessary for them to qualify for an early release date. A total of 428 prisoners have been freed under the terms of the early release programme, including 143 who were serving life sentences. The remaining prisoners will be transferred to other jails and the complex, which began as Long Kesh internment camp in 1971, will be closed, although no decision has been taken about its future use.

Among those granted freedom today are some of the North's most notorious Republican prisoners, including Brighton bomber Patrick Magee; Sean Kelly, who was convicted for his part in the Shankill bombing in 1993 that killed nine Protestants; IRA man, Thomas Begley; Docklands bomber, James McArdle, and those convicted of the murder of Lance bombadier, Stephen Restorick, the last British soldier to be killed in the North. Also due for release is leading Loyalist, Torrens Knight, convicted of a total of 12 murders, including the those at the Rising Sun bar in Greysteel in October 1993.

LVF member, Norman Coopey, who was jailed for life for the abduction, torture and murder of James Morgan, a Catholic teenager from County Down, will also be freed. The victim's mother, Philomena, said that she dreaded ever meeting his attacker again, but she had to accept the release.

Last night, a spokesman for the south Armagh-based support group, Families Acting for Innocent Relatives, said that the released prisoners would be out partying, while his members would be comforting people in tears. The Conservative Party spokesman on the North, Andrew Mackay, sympathised with the relatives’ predicament and said that the release programme should have been more closely linked to actual decommissioning of weapons.

One of the eight remaining Republican prisoners being held at Castlerea Prison has been released. Padraig Steenson had served just two and a half months of a seven-year sentence for explosive and firearms offences. Steenson, who is 36 and from the North Strand in Dublin, walked free from Castlerea Prison shortly after 1pm. He was accompanied by Sinn Féin Árd Comhairle member, Martin Ferris, and Armagh Northern Assembly member, Conor Murphy. He was met at the gates by Republican sympathisers, including former prisoners of the Maze and Crumlin Road Prison. He and Mr Ferris called for the release of the remaining Republican prisoners at Castlerea. They include five who pleaded guilty to the murder of Detective Garda Gerry McCabe during a raid on a post office van in Adare in June, 1996.