By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Michael Stone, the six-time murderer who calls himself a "soldier of Ulster," emerged Monday, dressed in black, through the clacking revolving turnstile at the Maze jail and, under a gray sky, faced solid phalanx of camera lenses and reporters’ questions.
Outside, about 60 tough-looking loyalists, many dressed in the regulation blue jeans, shades and heavy gold jewelry, clapped and cheered. One raised a banner reading Ulster Freedom Fighters in black and gold. It was, said Stone’s friend Frankie Gallagher, a "quiet and dignified release without triumphalism."
Sally McErlean, the mother of one of Stone’s six victims, Tommy McErlean, who was 18 when he was killed, had begged people not to turn her son’s killer into a hero. But her pleas fell on deaf ears. The walls of at least two gable walls in east Belfast bear 20-foot-high murals praising Stone’s exploits as a top UDA hitman.
"It only takes one Stone to kill three Fenians" read the graffiti when he was captured in 1988 after firing two guns and throwing Russian-made fragmentation grenades at republicans attending the funeral of the Gibraltar Three.
Twelve years later, just minutes after his early release under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, he passed the spot near where the attack took place, close to the main Belfast to Dublin motorway.
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At a packed press conference in the east of the city, he was unapologetic about the six people he murdered, although he said he "regretted" their deaths, and supported the peace process and wanted it to work.
He admitted stalking Martin McGuinness at his home in Derry before the Milltown cemetery massacre, and said the only reason he had not shot him dead was because the Sinn Fein man was holding his young daughter’s hand as he took her to school.
It was difficult to swallow, he said, leaning forward, that McGuinness is now minister for education in the Stormont executive and responsible for the schooling of his own three grandchildren.
During the week, another 88 prisoners are due for release under the same terms as Stone. They include Torrens Knight, the laughing UDA man who was part of the gang responsible for the seven murders at the Rising Sun Bar in Greysteel, and Sean Kelly, the 1993 Shankill Road bomber. In that incident, an IRA bomb killed 10 people, including two children.
They also include the South Armagh IRA team believed responsible for the series of so-called "border sniper" murders, in which a high-velocity super-sniping rifle was used.
The relatives of the victims these men were divided about their early release. Some say the releases are immoral, a reward for terrorism, adding insult to their awful agony of losing a loved one. Others, however, say that no matter how painful their grief, it cannot be allowed to hold back the peace process.
Stone’s release marks the beginning of a week in which the bulk of Northern Ireland’s paramilitary prisoners are to be freed. At the news conference, Stone said: "Today is a day of celebration for my friends, myself and my family. But I recognize that there are those in the nationalist/republican community who view my release with anger, just as the releases of 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."
Stone also said he would be working to help the peace process succeed. Asked if he believed the war was over, he said, "My war is over." Asked about his past actions, he responded: "They were military operations. I am a volunteer. Many of them were successful from a loyalist paramilitary viewpoint. I don’t really regret any fatalities that occurred, but to say sorry, I would be a hypocrite to say sorry."
By Friday, 430 loyalist and republican paramilitaries will have been released, leaving just a handful of prisoners in the prison. Those remaining inside include three members of the republican INLA who murdered LVF leader Billy Wright in the prison in December 1997.
Members of the main paramilitary groups on cease-fire will all be released. However, those ineligible for release include members of groups still active, such as the Real IRA, Continuity IRA, the Orange Volunteers and the Red Hand Defenders, who are being held in Maghaberry prison.
The latest wave of releases has been condemned by anti-agreement unionist politicians in Northern Ireland and by Conservative MPs in London. Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson said relatives of victims killed by paramilitaries feel frustrated as violence continues.
Democratic Unionist Party assembly member Ian Paisley Jr. said he is disgusted that there has been "no tangible decommissioning." On Sunday, a Conservative Party MP called the early-release plan "fundamentally flawed" and had been badly handled by the British government.