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17 September 1998 Edition

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First POWs walk to freedom

Mary Maguire was at Long Kesh last Saturday for the first prisoner releases under the Good Friday document

Such a miserable day for an historic moment. As little groups formed in the car park of Long Kesh, waiting for the first releases of prisoners of war, the atmosphere mounted into an all-cameras show.

Ironically, most journalists missed the turn from the small country road into the gates of the jail they have so frequently reported on. The waiting game started at 9am for the media. The photographers lined up facing the turnstiles.

The first break came when a group of Saoirse supporters, led by Saoirse national chairman Martin Meehan, gathered in the car park. They walked in silence, holding banners in solidarity.

Among them were number of ex-prisoners and many family members. Sinn Féin Assembly member Gerry Kelly, Brendan `Bik' McFarlane, and Sinn Féin councillor Michael Browne gathered in their ranks.

Gerry Kelly said, ``The mere fact that the British are letting a number of prisoners out proves that this process is an integral part of the Good Friday agreement. But the pace is far too slow. The NIO is obviously not matching the commission's workload and they are doing it deliberately.'' (The Commission has cleared the release of several dozen prisoners but the NIO has released less than ten to date.)

Michael Browne criticised the British government for its attitude in the process. ´The NIO have kept us in the dark. The three prisoners themselves were told as late as yesterday afternoon that they would be released today, in spite of the fact that all parties were given the understanding that all prisoners eligible would be given at least 24 hours notice prior to their release. There has clearly been a lot of messing about.''

After two hours of waiting, cracked jokes between ex-prisoners and journalists as well as mounting impatience, a visitor made his way out of the doors and blatantly insulted Saoirse supporters. The cameras rolled in delight. But the obvious struck: it was when all the media attention was hijacked that the three UDA/UFF ex-prisoners swept through the small door, escaping the media's eye until the cameramen caught up with them in the car park.

Fourty minutes later, three republican POWs emerged from the steel camp. Pat McGuigan, Louis McNally and Gerard Magee were greeted by Gerry Kelly and Bik McFarlane. Then they flew into the arms of their families. Their first minutes of freedom were hijacked by desperate photographers and cameras diving for the best angle. But nothing seemed to touch them. Gerard Magee, beaming, said, ``Tá athas orm,'' but added no more.

The cars roared out of the car park, leaving a confused crowd of journalists. Among the Saoirse supporters, words were rare. Their thoughts went to all the prisoners still detained beyond the spy posts. The only news of the day was that the lengthy process towards justice and long-deserved freedom had begun.
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