Temporary release for loyalist killer

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL STONE, released temporarily from prison yesterday, is a one-man loyalist equivalent of the IRA's Balcombe Street gang: a symbol from the heyday of extreme Protestant violence, of killing on a large scale.

The rapturous reception given to the Balcombe Street people at last week's Sinn Fein ard-fheis offended many Protestants and is perceived as a setback for the Yes campaign in next Friday's referendums on the Good Friday agreement.

The sight of Stone may reinforce that feeling, for, while a special Protestant detestation is reserved for republican prisoners, his appearance will serve as a reminder of one of the sections of the accord which most troubles Unionist voters.

This is the controversial provision that, if all goes well with the agreement, Stone and all other prisoners whose parent paramilitary organisations are on ceasefire can expect release by the middle of the year 2000 at the latest.

He became an icon of loyalist terror because he killed six Catholics, because his extraordinary attack on a republican funeral was photographed and televised, and because it was a near-suicide mission which almost ended in his own death.

The incident took place in Belfast's Milltown cemetery in March 1988 as republicans buried three IRA activists who had been shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar. While one of the coffins was being lowered into the grave, Stone threw hand grenades at the thousands of mourners.

As the crowds took cover he fired shots from two handguns then jogged towards a motorway several hundred yards away. After the initial confusion he was pursued by several hundred republican youths, whom he held off with occasional gunfire. Some caught up with him as he reached the motorway and he was beaten unconscious before being rescued by an RUC patrol. When he came round, his first question was: "How many of the bastards did I kill?" He had killed three of his pursuers and injured a total of 60 people with his grenades and bullets, including a 10-year-old boy, a grandmother and a pregnant woman.

At his trial he pleaded not guilty but offered no defence, which meant the prosecution had to present all its evidence, giving maximum publicity to the details of his career. It emerged that he had carried out three earlier killings of Catholics and conspired to murder many more, including Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness. All this made him a celebrity in the backstreets of the loyalist ghettoes. Gifts and fan-mail were sent to him in the Maze prison, while a regular stream of stories in the Northern Ireland tabloid press kept him in the public eye. It is said locks of his hair have been raffled in loyalist clubs.

His 10 years in the jail seem to have mellowed him somewhat, for, although he lives within walls plastered with the regalia of paramilitarism, he is thought of now as a comparative moderate. In January this year he was among prisoners who met the Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam.

Speaking to journalists at that time, he said: "It's all about dialogue and that's what we've been pushing. If we can get through this situation with loyalists, anything's possible."