Loyalist Stone attempts Stormont attack

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The shadow of the gunman made a startling and shocking reappearance in Northern Ireland yesterday when a heavily-armed Protestant assassin was intercepted within yards of the chamber of the Belfast Assembly.

Armed with a gun, a knife and up to eight lethal nail-bombs, notorious loyalist killer Michael Stone may have been targeting Belfast's two most important local politicians, Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams.

Mr Stone, who served a lengthy sentence for six murders, was wrestled to the ground at the front door of Stormont, just a short distance from the entrance to the chamber.

Army experts later made safe a bag full of nail-bombs. In 1988 Mr Stone failed in an attempt to kill Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, while yesterday he could be heard yelling: "No surrender, no sell-out Paisley."

The Northern Ireland Police Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde, said of the explosive devices: "Their potential for death, destruction and injury is being assessed. They are fairly amateurish in design - that does not make them any less dangerous."

Mr Stone's attempted attack disrupted a day of limited political progress, causing the evacuation of Stormont staff and politicians. It also demonstrated the potential that just one individual holds for tearing apart a peace process which has been making progress, although at a painfully slow rate.

Although the initial assumption is that Mr Stone was acting alone, and that there is unlikely to be a return to full-scale violence, no one knows what effect a high-profile assassination might have on the peace process.

An immediate review of security at Stormont has been ordered, although there was praise for the male and female security staff who stopped Mr Stone.

Sir Hugh described the incident as "a sad publicity act by a very sad individual", while Gerry Adams said many questions needed to be answered about the history of Mr Stone's gun and the nature of his devices.

He added: "This was a serious attempt to injure and kill. The fact is that if he had not been stopped people would have died."

Inside the chamber Mr Adams had nominated Mr McGuinness as deputy first minister of a new power-sharing government. Mr Paisley, however, declined to nominate himself as first minister, indicating that Sinn Fein needed to show movement on policing before he would do so.

Declaring that "today we stand in need of divine strength", the Democratic Unionist leader said power-sharing depended on Sinn Fein showing total recognition and support for the police.

Although this was far less than had been hoped for by the British Government, Tony Blair made it clear that it was enough for the peace process to continue in the lead-up to elections in March of next year, which London and Dublin hope will be followed by a coalition government.

There were, however, some ominous signs of divided opinions within the DUP, as 10 members of its Assembly party issuing a hardline statement which appeared to limit Mr Paisley's freedom for manoeuvre.

Tony Blair said he had spoken to Mr Paisley and Mr Adams and was determined that "paramilitaries" would not be allowed to disrupt democracy.

He added: "No move forward in Northern Ireland is easy, we've learned that over 10 years, and it's not because the people, or indeed, the leaders in Northern Ireland want it to be so, but because each step towards a different and better future is taken alongside the memory of a wretched and divisive past."

In Dublin the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, said: "It seems that Michael Stone has gone on the rampage again, in a very dangerous way. But he was stopped. It just shows you exactly what we are trying to get away from in Northern Ireland."

TV terrorist in love with self-publicity

Michael Stone has been Northern Ireland's television terrorist, an icon of extreme loyalism who has now twice allowed himself to be pictured during acts of violence 18 years apart.

He is an extreme example of a compulsive exhibitionist and self-publicist. But he has killed at least three men.

Politically, he has swung bizarrely between acts of violence and support for the peace process. One of the few consistencies of his life is his craving for publicity.

He killed three men in 1988 when he launched his unprecedented one-man attack on thousands of mourners at the funerals of the three IRA members shot by the SAS in Gibraltar.

But he then confessed to three other separate murders some or all of which, according to loyalists at the time, he did not carry out.

His purpose, he said, had been to kill Sinn Fein's leader Gerry Adams and its chief negotiator Martin McGuinness. "I planned to shoot McGuinness and Adams, two head shots - that's where they were going to die." He said his view was obstructed.

At his trial he pleaded not guilty but offered no defence, so obliging the prosecution to present all of its evidence.

Yesterday, he was halted only yards away from the Assembly chamber where Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness sat in the front row of the Sinn Fein contingent: it is conceivable that this time he could have reached them.

David McKittrick