Unionists give killer a hero's welcome

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The Independent Online
IT WAS meant to be a major rally for the "yes" campaign in the referendum to counter concern that increasing numbers of Protestants were entrenching behind a rejectionist vote. But that was before news spread that Michael Stone was in town. After that, everything changed.

By yesterday evening there was little doubt who would be the star of the show at Ulster Hall. The leadership of the Ulster Democratic Party was hardly ecstatic at the prospect of Stone's presence, after he was freed on leave to attend the rally. They feared it would have the same pejorative effect on the campaign as the display of the Balcombe Street gang at the Sinn Fein ard-fheis in Dublin.

In March 1988, Stone launched a one-man assault on a funeral at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast; three people were killed, and more than 60 injured. The funeral was that of the three IRA members shot dead by the Special Air Service in Gibraltar.

Among loyalist activists and observers there had been lipsmacking and expectation all day. "Will he come?" "If he does what will he do?" The answers came at just before 8pm when the main door of the hall, packed with more than 500 people, was flung open and in came Michael Stone.

The foot-stamping roar of approval was prolonged and thunderous. "We want Michael," they chanted. He marched, not walked, to the dais as befitting a soldier of the union as he has always claimed to be, rather than a terrorist.

Stone, who rigorously works out at the Maze, was muscular and moustachioed with dark shoulder-length curly hair. His shoulders rolled as he walked through the hall. Dozens of photographers' cameras flashed and television cameras whirred.

Stone flicked his gaze at the media to his left and right, and the media stared back. For some, including myself, the last sight of him had been when he had been throwing grenades at us at Milltown 10 years ago. "We want Michael Stone," the roar continued. Gary McMichael, the young leader of the UDP whose father was assassinated by the IRA, and who is said to have had reservations about Stone's appearance, reacted coolly. He welcomed Stone and then the two disappeared.

They reappeared a few minutes later to more thunderous applause and then Stone took his seat behind the podium looking down at the crowd and their faces filled with adulation. From the balcony hung a banner saying: "Michael Stone says Yes".

Those who know Stone say that he has always craved approbation of his peers. He achieved that among his own kind by killing six Catholics, and being photographed and televised world-wide during his murderous attack at Milltown. It is, perhaps, one of the ironies of life in Northern Ireland that his new claim to fame is as an advocate of peace.

The UDP leadership in their speeches praised the prisoners at the Maze, including Stone, for being instrumental in holding the ceasefire by the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Freedom Fighters. Stone and fellow prisoners are likely to be released in about two years' time. He is then expected to play a more active role in the political process and the rehabilitation of the man who once epitomised loyalist terror will continue apace.