A leading Orangeman has defended his decision to attend an exhibition of art by loyalist paramilitary Michael Stone.
Stone, who was convicted of killing six people, displayed his artwork at an exhibition hosted by the Reach Project while on temporary release from prison.
Orange Order Grand Secretary Mervyn Gibson, whose organisation has consistently refused to meet with Sinn Fein, said the event was about moving away from terrorism.
Asked by the News Letter if he felt apprehensive about the event given the nature of Mr Stone’s crimes, Mervyn Gibson said: “I’ve sat in the same room and been in discussions with Martin McGuinness, so why would I feel uncomfortable with Michael Stone?”
He added: “Anything I heard in either conversation or in any of the speeches was about terrorism being wrong, and how they – including Stone – didn’t want kids involved.”
In his platform speech at last year’s Twelfth of July celebrations, Rev Gibson said: “Unlike those who have to engage with Sinn Fein – we (the Orange Order) don’t.”
In response to an invitation to meet Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald, the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland said that it had “a long-standing policy of not meeting with Sinn Fein”.
Rev Gibson explained his reasoning for attending the ‘Milestones’ art exhibition last month.
“I was attending as a local minister because it was in my parish,” he said. “I am also involved with Reach, the organisation hosting it. And it was about encouraging people to move away from terrorism.”
The exhibition opened on July 9 and stayed open to the public for two days.
The host for the event, the Reach Project, is an organisation that works with loyalist “ex-combatants”.
In its mission statement, the group say their aim is to “educate both the young and the elderly so it helps our people to move on to a peaceful and brighter future for all of the people of Northern Ireland”.
The brother of one of Mr Stone’s victims, Dermot Hackett, who was found dead after a gun attack in 1987, said the family should have been notified of Stone’s release.
“I would hate to think that some of my immediate family happened to walk up the street in Belfast and see him walking towards them,” Roddy Hackett told the BBC.
“I think it would be an awful shock for them, especially Dermot’s family.
“It is only right that they should have let us know,” he added.
Mr Gibson agreed that the family should have been notified, but said that was not a matter for the Reach Project.
“The organisation didn’t publicise this event, because they didn’t want it to be high profile,” he said.
“In fact, I have to say I agree with the families that they should have been informed (of Mr Stone’s release), but that is an issue for the system of parole.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said there is an information scheme for victims run by the prison service and the probation board.
“The Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, operate a co-located Victim Information Scheme which aims to provide information in relation to prison releases and community sentences to those victims who wish to receive it,” a spokesperson said.
“If a victim is registered with the scheme they will be provided with information including information in relation to prisoner release. There is legislation in place which explains what information can be shared with victims.”
A spokesperson for the Reach Project said: “Reach UK supports initiatives from all sections of the community and was invited to consider hosting a free one-week exhibition of artworks from Michael Stone’s ‘Milestones collection. Reach is a non-judgment organisation and volunteered space to host the art pieces and a free-to-attend opening evening in mid-July.
“Reach recognises that art can be a powerful tool to help people deal with personal issues and has been successfully used to promote mutual understanding between unionist and nationalist communities.”
The exhibition was undertaken with no publicity, in a low key manner bearing in mind sensitivities of the past with full knowledge of the prison bodies which encourage all ex-prisoners to reintegrate into society in a positive and peaceful manner.”