By Jack Holland
Get out the party hats and paper horns. Johnny Adair, Michael Stone and Patrick Magee will soon be coming home. They are among the more well-known prisoners who were due for release by last week as the Maze is emptied of its paramilitaries. It is reckoned that about 200 will have been freed under the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement by Christmas. Adair has been inside since March 1994, convicted of planning terrorist acts on behalf of the UDA. Stone, also a UDA member, has been in jail since 1988, convicted of multiple murder. Magee, who was in the IRA, has served the longest stretch. He has been in jail since June 1985 on multiple murder convictions.
People in Northern Ireland have grown to accept the releases that are now occurring on a weekly basis. At first they drew a lot of unfavorable comment. But now it seems that they are becoming as predictable as bomb attacks and shootings used to be in Northern Ireland, though some still blanche at the thought that the men responsible for many of those attacks will now once more be walking about the streets, men like Adair, Stone and Magee.
Take Adair, for example. By the age of 28, the Shankill Road lad was suspected of murdering 12 people and of being involved in the planning of many more crimes. He was part of the UDA’s "C" company, which has recruited from the Shankill area since about 1972 when it first began murdering Catholics. One of "C" company’s founding members was Johnny White, who preceded Johnny Adair by 20 years at the head of the list of Most Feared Loyalist Paramilitaries. By 1993, police believe that Adair was — like White before him — the O/C of "C" company. The Shankill Road area is graced with beautiful murals celebrating "C" company’s exploits. Above a painting of four masked gunmen the slogan proclaims: "UFF 2nd BATT C COY" and underneath them is written "SIMPLY THE BEST." It is quite clear what they were best at: between 1972 and 1976, they were responsible for the majority of sectarian murders of Catholics in Belfast. In the early 1990s, under Adare’s command, they resumed that position.
Killers they may be, but they were not without wit. At the peak of his power, Adair was in the habit of driving around the nearby Catholic district of the Ardoyne, looking for targets. The man he wanted to kill most of all was Eddie Copeland, reputed to be the O/C of the IRA’s Third battalion. On one occasion, Adair was stopped at a police checkpoint. The police knew who he was but had to go through the formality of asking his name.
"Eddie Copeland," he replied. The cop nodded knowingly.
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"Well, then, Eddie, tell us your address," he said.
"I was hoping you would be able to tell me that," Adair answered, grinning.
In September 1994, six months after he was arrested, Adair told a New York Times reporter: "I believe in a couple of months the loyalists will declare a cease-fire and then the charges against me will be dropped." It actually took just one month for the loyalists to call a cease-fire, which they did on Oct. 13. It took another four and a half years for the consequences of that gesture, and of the success of the continuing peace process (which he vehemently opposed at one time) to free him.
For his colleague in the UDA Michael Stone, it took even longer. Stone will go down in the history of the Troubles as the wild figure seen on television running between the headstones in Milltown cemetery on a cold gray March day in 1988, pausing now and again to hurl a hand grenade or take a shot at a crowd of mourners who were scattering in panic in all directions. The mourners had been attending the funeral on March 15 of the three IRA activists, Mairead Farrell, Danny McCann and Sean Savage, shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar nine days earlier. Stone killed three people, including one IRA man, before fleeing back toward the M1 motorway, where the enraged crowd grabbed him. The police arrived in time to save him. During his trial, he confessed to another three murders, which he committed on the UDA’s behalf, though at the time of the cemetery attack he was apparently acting on his own.
Stone, a former member of the Ulster Defense Regiment, a solitary, disturbed individual, soon became a hero on the Shankill. Before long there was a ballad written about his exploits. He had a reputation as a crazy, even within loyalist circles, where both UDA and UVF leaders seemed inclined to keep him at arm’s length, but in later years became safe enough to meet with the Northern Ireland Secretary of State Mo Mowlam when she visited the Maze. Now Stone liaises between the UDA and the International Body on Decommissioning. The way he chucked those grenades around certainly indicates an aptitude for getting rid of weapons.
Last but not least among this list of notable releases is Patrick Magee, the Provisional IRA man who was convicted of the Brighton bombing of Oct. 12, 1984, which came close to killing Margaret Thatcher and wiping out most of her government. They were attending the Tory Party’s annual conference at the time. Magee had left a bomb of between 20 and 30 pounds of explosives in Room 629 of the Grand Hotel in mid-September, arming it with a delayed action timer such as is found in video recorders. When it exploded at 2:54 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 12, it brought down four floors of the hotel. It narrowly missed Thatcher, but killed five other people, including three women. Magee was linked to the attack by way of a print on a hotel registration card. The 33-year-old Magee, who had grown up in Britain, had already spent a period interned in the early 1970s. He was believed to have taken part in a series of bomb attacks in England in 1978 and was wanted in connection with an arms dump found in England in 1983.
In jail, he became very studious and was an avid reader, having decided to read about history rather than make it.