One of the most controversial aspects of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was the early release of paramilitary prisoners, some of whom had been involved in the most horrific murders of the Troubles. While some argued that this release was necessary in order to engender good will towards the GFA, many have opposed this specific clause of the Agreement, arguing the GFA has been a failure due to the fact it has allowed convicted murderers to walk free.
Under the terms of the Agreement, just under 500 Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries, whose affiliated organisations had agreed to lay down their weapons, were granted early release. Those whose organisations had not announced a ceasefire were not eligible for this early release scheme. Some of the most notorious murderers released included Patrick Magee, responsible for the 1984 Brighton Hotel bombing in which five people were killed.
Even Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister and one of the key architects of the GFA, admitted that the releases were 'very hard to stomach'.
The people who were most shocked by the early release of the prisoners were family members of the victims. One man who lost his father, two uncles, two cousins and many friends in the Troubles proclaimed "We have prisoners getting out here today who are serial killers, who believe they have the right to murder people in the name of their cause."
This sentiment is still echoed in many parts of Northern Ireland as a recent questionnaire showed. One native of Ballymena argued in 2018, on the 20th Anniversary of the Agreement that, 'at the time I thought SF got far too much for far too little in return. Murderers are out walking our streets after cowardly murders. As Gerry (Adams, right) said in Germany, he believes that the gun and bomb is the way to obtain political advantage. So a leopard will never change its spots.'
Due to the deep hurt and pain caused by many of the released prisoners to so many families in Northern Ireland, on both sides of the political divide, some have argued that the Good Friday Agreement has been a failure as it allowed those responsible to walk free. Although many Northern Irish citizens questioned on the 20th Anniversary of the Agreement agree that the GFA was broadly positive, the release of the prisoners is still seen by some as too high a price to pay for the GFA.