Jailed loyalist killer Michael Stone’s bid to be freed early for a second time under the terms of the Belfast Agreement is set to be refused, the High Court heard on Thursday.
A panel of Sentence Review Commissioners has issued a preliminary indication that the Milltown Cemetery bomber’s application to be released again should be denied.
But he still has an opportunity to appeal the determination at an oral hearing due to take place later this summer.
The development came in a legal challenge brought by the sister of one of Stone’s victims.
Deborah McGuinness’s brother, Thomas McErlean, was among three mourners murdered in the grenade attack on an IRA funeral at Milltown in west Belfast in March 1988.
She wants a ruling that the 64-year-old loyalist does not have the legal right to mount another attempt to get out of prison.
Her lawyers contend the Commissioners do not have jurisdiction to consider Stone’s application.
The case had been on hold pending the outcome of a preliminary assessment of his request for a declaration that he is eligible for release in accordance with the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998.
It was disclosed in court that the panel confirmed earlier this week “they are minded to make a substantive determination to the effect that (Stone’s) application should be refused”.
Judges were told Stone wants Ms McGuinness’ legal challenge determined before he seeks to reverse the Commissioners’ decision.
His barrister, David Scoffield QC said: “He would like to avoid a situation where he has a hearing before the Sentence Review Commissioners, and if that goes well his hopes would then be dashed.”
Adjourning proceedings, Mr Justice McCloskey listed a further hearing for next month.
Stone is currently serving a 30-year prison sentence for waging a sectarian murder campaign.
As well as the cemetery attack which claimed the lives of Mr McErlean, John Murray and Kevin Brady, he was also the gunman in three other killings.
Milkman Patrick Brady was murdered in south Belfast in November 1984, 12 months before joiner Kevin McPolin was shot in the head in Lisburn, Co Antrim.
In May 1987 Dermott Hackett, a bread server, was found dead in his van between Drumquin and Omagh. He had been shot up to 16 times with a submachine gun.
Stone was originally freed early in 2000 as part of arrangements in the Belfast Agreement.
Six years later, however, he was returned to jail after trying to enter Parliament Buildings at Stormont, armed with explosives, knives and an axe, in an attempt to murder Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.
He denied it had been a bid to kill the politicians, instead claiming it was an act pf performance art.
Earlier this year the High Court held that Stone’s tariff means he is not eligible for release until 2024 - thwarting his plans at that stage to go before the Parole Commissioners.
The ex-UDA man is now attempting to secure an alternative route out of jail through a Sentence Review Commissioners hearing.