ONE could hardly find a more emotive issue than the release of killers of gardai.Until recently it was a hanging offence on the statute books only to be replaced with a term of 40 years imprisonment. When the law was changed then Justice Minister Ray Burke insisted those convicted of the capital murder of a garda would serve every day of their sentence.
The murder of a police officer in this jurisdiction is all the more heinous a crime given the force is still broadly unarmed.
Indeed, the majority of those killed in the 30 years of Troubles have been members of the uniformed and unarmed branch of the force.
Although many link the release of the killers of RUC men with the killers of gardai, unofficially the gardai reject this. They point out that the RUC is in many ways a paramilitary force or a sort of gendarmerie which is highly militarised with easy access to weaponry creating a crucial difference.
It was predictable that the issue of releasing the terrorist killers of gardai pursuant to the Good Friday pact would become a contentious issue here. In the weeks following the signing of the peace agreement the subtext was overlooked as the country breathed a sigh of relief.
Now it is out in the open and will undoubtedly be surrounded by heated and emotional debate over the next 12 months or so. One has to say it was unlikely to be otherwise. After all, the eight people currently serving sentences for killing gardai did so in the most cowardly of fashions:
* Sgt Patrick Morrissey, unarmed, shot down as he chased after an INLA gang across fields in 1985. INLA gunmen Noel Callan and Michael McHugh serving sentences for the Collon, Co Louth murder.
* Garda Henry Byrne and Garda John Morley, shot dead, after two members of maverick terrorist group Saor Eire crashed into their patrol car near Ballaghadereen, Co Roscommon on July 7, 1980. Paddy McCann and Colm O'Shea convicted of unarmed Garda Morley's capital murder. * Det Garda Seamus Quaid, unarmed at the time, murdered when he stopped an IRA robbery gang at Ballyconnick, Co Wexford, on October 10, 1980. Peter Rogers, who tried to blow his way out of prison, convicted of the crime.
* Det Garda Frank Hand, ambushed by an IRA robbery gang as he escorted a post office delivery at Drumree, Co Meath in 1984. The young officer did not have time to reach for his gun. Provos Patrick McPhilips, Thomas Eccles and Brian McShane convicted.
There was also the IRA murder of recruit garda Gary Sheehan as he searched for kidnap victim Don Tidey in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim and for which nobody has been brought to book.
Within the force, it is feared not only will all eight men serving sentences for capital murder be freed but anybody convicted of the killing of Det Garda Jerry McCabe will be released in the short term. Detective McCabe was ambushed in the picturesque village of Adare, Co Limerick and riddled with AK47 automatic gunfire.
The robbery was carried out by members of the IRA in Munster. Justice Minister John O'Donoghue has moved to reassure the family and force that anyone found guilty of this crime will not come under the terms of the Stormont Agreement. But Sinn Fein boss and former Provo gunrunner Martin Ferris insisted in a newspaper interview that any IRA member convicted of this crime should benefit from the pact.
The family of Det Garda Hand have been the first to publicly question the releases. Michael Hand says his brother's killers ``were never convicted of IRA membership nor was the crime claimed by the IRA yet they seem to be part of the Belfast Agreement''.
After a meeting with Mr O'Donoghue in which the minister confirmed the detective's murderers would be released, Michael said: ``They had no right to barter our family's grief without consultation in this way.
The IRA garda killers currently serving sentences are now guaranteed release. But the four others, INLA members Callan and McHugh and Saor Eire raiders, McCann and O'Shea will also be allowed walk free if their groupings sign up to the Good Friday Agreement.
IRA man Peter Rogers is housed in ``the Bunker'' basement with psychopath kidnapper Dessie O'Hare, the ``Border Fox.''
And how stands O'Hare's position if the INLA to which he belonged signs up will he also be released? A moot point. But is it the high price of peace?