'My war is over' says freed loyalist killer

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The Independent Online

At 10.45 yesterday morning Michael Stone again made history as he stepped through the turnstile of the Maze. His appearance as a free man in the glare of the media was a potent and emotive symbol of the early release of prisoners under the Good Friday Agreement and the passions it has aroused.

At 10.45 yesterday morning Michael Stone again made history as he stepped through the turnstile of the Maze. His appearance as a free man in the glare of the media was a potent and emotive symbol of the early release of prisoners under the Good Friday Agreement and the passions it has aroused.

He was the first of 80 republicans and loyalists convicted of terrorist offences who will be freed this week. Almost all the paramilitaries now in jail will be out and the Maze will close in the next few months.

Twelve years ago Stone wrote his own chapter in the history of Northern Ireland's strife with an attack on republican mourners at Belfast's Milltown Cemetery. Then, he revelled in his notoriety.

But yesterday at the Maze, released early from his conviction for murdering six Catholics, he was keen to avoid any "triumphalism". After asubdued welcome from friends, family and supporters he was whisked away in a people carrier, past Milltown Cemetery.

Later, at a press conference, he said: "My war is over." In a black shirt, black trousers and black boots, his hair in a ponytail, he was keen to appear a man reinvented. All he wanted to do, he said, was to disappear from public view and, after marrying his fiancée, live a quiet life running a flower shop.

He understood the bitterness felt by many at his release, he said. "Today is a day of celebration for my friends, myself and my family. But I recognise that there are those in the nationalist and republican community who view my release with anger, just as the release of the republican prisoners on Friday will also anger the loyalist Unionist community. I understand this. There are no words I can say to take away this hurt."

He stressed his support for the peace process and said he became convinced by the "triple lock" guarantee for the sanctity of the union given by Tony Blair. "I believe that Blair can be trusted."

But the violence of Stone's past was never far away. He said he had tried to kill Martin McGuinness, now the Northern Ireland education minister. He had stalked him at his home and he was also the target, with Gerry Adams, at Milltown.

Stone said with a smile: "He is now in charge of my grandchildren's education, which is ironic. I tried to assassinate him as he took his own daughter to primary school but I didn't, because his daughter was holding his hand."

But relations of those Stone killed were angered by what they described as a perversion of justice. Alice Murray, whose son John was killed at Milltown Cemetery, said: "It is terrible for us and for a lot of other people. I don't know how any of us are going to go through it. May God look down on the people who are suffering like us."

Stone will be the first of some of the most notorious paramilitary prisoners to be released this week.

They include Sean Kelly, found guilty of killing nine Protestant civilians in the Shankill Road bombing in October 1993, Torrens Knight, part of a hit-squad that killed seven in a pub at Greysteel in revenge for the Shankill attack, and James McCardle, sentenced to 25 years for the London Docklands bomb, which killed two people and injured 40 in February 1996.

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