By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — It was a sight few thought they would ever see as wave after wave of republican and loyalist prisoners walked free from Europe’s top-security jail outside Belfast into the arms of waiting comrades and family on Friday.
In the grim, gray parking lot outside the main visitors’ gate, the atmosphere changed dramatically as the different paramilitary groups made their exits. The cheering and flag-waving of the UDA, for example, was quickly followed by the furtive exit of the LVF’s six prisoners, many of whom hid their faces.
The crowds waiting to greet the three loyalist contingents were almost entirely made up of men, whereas the far larger crowd of people waiting on the IRA’s 46 released prisoners included many excited women and children.
The atmosphere of menace in the air as the UDA men walked free was in stark contrast to the champagne popping and confetti of the republican releases. No prisoner, however, hung around very long.
The Maze is now virtually empty of inmates and is due to be mothballed later this year. Ulster Unionist minister Sir Reg Empey believes it should be razed, while republicans believe part of it should be preserved as a museum.
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Eight-six prisoners were freed on Friday, 78 of them from the Maze. First out were eight members of the UVF. They came out of a side entrance, unexpectedly, with no flags or cheering to greet them. None commented as they sped away.
Speaking on their behalf, William Smith of the Progressive Unionist Party, which has links with the UVF, said: "We acknowledge the release of prisoners today will not be welcomed by everyone and we understand and sympathize with that view. It is not our intention to glorify this occasion."
They were quickly followed by a group of the UDA/UFF men, who were greeted by a crowd of flag-waving supporters, among them the notorious Shankill Road loyalist Johnny Adair.
As UDP spokesman John White, himself a former double-life-sentence prisoner, said the men wanted no cheering, he was interrupted by cheering.
Next came the LVF men, including Torrens Knight, who killed eight people in the Rising Sun bar in 1993 at Greysteel, Co. Derry, and three Catholic workmen at Castlerock the same year. Knight, who was "born again" in jail and is now a pastor, wore a white hood to shield his face from cameramen.
Then the republican prisoners began emerging, first the six INLA prisoners, and then the 46 IRA men. Members of the IRSP tore down posters stuck to the prison walls put there by anti-agreement protesters and put others up in their place critical of other republicans.
Jim McVeigh, officer commanding the IRA in the Maze, said: "We are determined to pursue and achieve the goals for which so many gave their lives: that is the establishment of a united democratic socialist republic."