Michael Stone: Maverick Milltown assassin earned worldwide notoriety

The story of a paramilitary killer once viewed by many as a loyalist hero developed a farcical twist when he took his fight against republicans to the doors of Stormont.

William Matchett: SAS Gibraltar operation against IRA looks increasingly justified in post-9/11 terrorism era

Loyalist gunman Michael Stone attacks mourners at an IRA funeral in Milltown cemetry in March 1988

Loyalist gunman Michael Stone attacks mourners at an IRA funeral in Milltown cemetry in March 1988

Press coverage of an ailing Michael Stone being overpowered by civilian security guards in 2006 – while armed with a crude bomb and various other weapons – were a far cry from the lethal bravado displayed at Milltown cemetery in March 1988.

Media crews at Milltown for the funerals of the three IRA members shot by the SAS in Gibraltar captured breathtaking images of the maverick loyalist lobbing grenades and firing pistols at mourners, killing three people and injuring up to 50 more.

A relatively low-key approach taken by police on the day of the Milltown burials gave Stone greater freedom to get within feet of the main IRA and Sinn Fein leaders near the grave sides.

On the morning of March 16, 1988, the solitary loyalist – who had already murdered at least three Catholic men in the previous four years – made his way across Belfast from the east of the city to join the thousands of people gathering in the west.

The scene at Milltown Cemetery as loyalist gunman Michael Stone mounts his attack

The scene at Milltown Cemetery as loyalist gunman Michael Stone mounts his attack

Stone armed himself with seven Russian-made military grenades and two handguns, concealing the majority of his terrorist arsenal in a camera bag. One of his pistols was a powerful Browning 9mm, the other an equally deadly .357 Magnum revolver, however, the lengthy seven-second delay timer on the grenades gave many potential victims the chance to take evasive action.

With the eyes of the world watching, as the third of the three coffins was lowered in a grave, the attack was triggered.

The initial confusion among the mourners quickly turned to anger as it became apparent that a gunman with murderous intent was in their midst.

As a large section of the crowd chased Stone through the cemetery towards the M1 motorway, the long-haired assassin stopped on several occasions to throw grenades or fire shots at his pursuers.

Michael Stone is apprehended by police

Michael Stone is apprehended by police

The men who died – Thomas McErlean, John Murray and IRA member Kevin Brady – were all said to have been involved in the pursuit.

Their killer was eventually caught and severely beaten before police officers on the periphery of the funerals were able to intervene to make an arrest.

Troubles-hardened journalists from Northern Ireland covering the funerals were almost as shocked as the international press corps at what they had just witnessed on the outskirts of Belfast.

Many English press photographers have since recalled the race to get to the airport with their rolls of film at a time when the negatives had to be flown back to Fleet Street in London for developing.

Unlike the vast majority of loyalist paramilitaries Stone remained under the police radar, travelling widely across Northern Ireland to target potential victims.

He has repeatedly maintained that he targeted only known active republicans but his victim list would suggest otherwise.

When he finally faced a court, Stone was sentenced to more than 800 years. He was freed from the Maze prison 12 years later under the terms of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. Prior to his release, Stone claimed to be a strong supporter of the peace process and was one of a number of senior loyalist inmates who met secretary of state Mo Mowlam inside the Maze prison.

Interviewed after his release, Stone recalled how he first entered St Agnes’s Church where the joint funeral service was being held, getting close to the two main Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

“I learned a lesson there,” he said.

“That republicans weep and mourn, just like loyalists. I contemplated taking out Adams and McGuinness in the church, but it seemed too barbaric.”

The apparently remorseful killer published an autobiography in 2003, None Shall Divide Us, in which he claimed to have renounced violence and expressed sympathy for his victims’ families.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph in 2003, Stone recalled the events at Milltown 15 years earlier.

“I got demonised that day, and rightly so,” he said.

“I tell youngsters now who still think I am some sort of loyalist hero: ‘There is nothing romantic about taking a life. It is cold and brutal. The dead bleed ... you get to hear their dying words, see the final seconds of their life – yet two more things their families never forgive you for’.

By the time of the Stormont incident in 2006, Stone was once again angry at the political situation and acted with murderous intent. hoping to kill senior republicans who now occupied positions of power in the Northern Ireland Executive.

In 2008, at his subsequent trial for the farcical terrorist attack in November 2006, Stone was sentenced to 16 years. In a plea of mitigation, his defence barrister had asked the judge to show mercy to his near-crippled client.

The sheer audacity of the Milltown attack outraged republicans like never before and feelings had reached fever pitch by the time the funerals of Stone’s three victims took place a few days later.