Monday 18 February 2019

Stone among 80 prisoners to go free this week

By LOUISE McCALL

LOYALIST killer Michael Stone will walk out of the Maze prison today after serving only 11 years of a 30-year sentence under terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Others poised to walk free on Friday include Shankill Road bomber Sean Kelly, UFF killer Torrens Knight and IRA border sniper Bernard McGinn.



Kelly was sentenced to life in 1995 for the Shankill Road bombing; Knight was part of a UFF gang that struck a week later and shot dead eight Catholics as they sat drinking in the village of Greysteel.



The vexed issue of prisoner releases has touched a raw nerve with victims' families and divided politicians. A total of 340 loyalist and republican prisoners have been released since the agreement was signed in 1998.



Besides Stone and another loyalist prisoner, 80 others will benefit from the early release scheme next Friday. It will leave the infamous Maze prison, near Belfast, with just 16 prisoners still left locked up.



``After all the prisoners are gone it will be mothballed and kept as contingency accommodation,'' a prison service spokesman said.



Stone is being freed after serving one-third of his sentence for several murders, including the infamous ``Milltown Cemetery murders''.



Under the full glare of the world's media, Stone struck at the funerals of three IRA members in 1988, firing a handgun repeatedly at mourners and tossing grenades into the crowds of women, men and children present. Three men were killed and many more were injured.



He was also convicted in 1989 of murdering three Catholics in separate incidents.



Mrs Sally McErlean, whose 19-year-old son Thomas was one of Stone's victims in the Milltown massacre, has mixed feelings about prisoners being freed early even though she accepts that it may be necessary if a lasting peace is to be created in the North.



``Isn't that what it's all about if it's for peace. But why should we have to pay a price? I think it's very sad that prisoners get out to flaunt themselves in front of children as heroes ... to me, he's a devil,'' she said.



Stone had applied to the High Court in Belfast to be freed last Friday but the judge upheld the authorities' decision that he would not walk free until today.



Mrs Rita Restorick, whose son, Stephen, was the last British soldier to be killed in Northern Ireland in 1997, said she could accept that her son's killers are being freed early as long as they renounce violence.



``People have accepted the early release on the understanding that it is the end of the conflict. It's like as they say, at the end of a war prisoners are released,'' she said.



Democratic Unionist justice spokesman Mr Paisley Jnr laid the blame for the releases with Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble because of his support for the Good Friday Agreement.



The North Antrim MLA said he was ``utterly disgusted that the only tangible legacy David Trimble has left Northern Ireland is the mass release of killers onto the province's streets''.



UNIONISTS CONDEMN EARLY PRISONER RELEASE SCHEME

By Dan McGinn, Political Correspondent PA News



Unionists opposed to the Good Friday Agreement tonight condemned plans to release some of Northern Ireland's most notorious republican and loyalist killers onto the province's streets this week.



Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson and Democratic Unionist Assemblyman Ian Paisley Junior joined Conservative MPs in attacking the operation of the scheme under the Agreement while paramilitary groups remained armed.



Among those set to benefit from the scheme this week are:



:: Michael Stone of the Ulster Freedom Fighters who killed three people in a gun and grenade attack in a Belfast graveyard at the funeral of three IRA members killed in Gibraltar in March 1998.



:: James McArdle who has served two years of a 25 year sentence for planting the London Docklands bomb in February 1996 which killed two people and injured 40 others.



:: Sean Kelly who was part of the IRA team behind the Shankill Road fish shop bombing in Belfast in October 1993 which killed nine Protestant civilians as well as his comrade, Thomas Begley.



:: Torrens Knight who was part of a UFF hit squad who killed seven people - six Catholics and one Protestant in the ``Trick or Treat massacre'' in the Rising Sun pub in Greysteel, Co Londonderry, exactly one week after the Shankill bombing.



Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson told PA News the release of around 80 republicans and loyalists was ``deeply frustrating'' for those who had had relatives killed or maimed by the prisoners.



He said: ``People are deeply depressed and frustrated that the paramilitaries have reaped the benefits of the Agreement without a single bullet or a single ounce of explosives being decommissioned.



``They are also concerned that the paramilitary groups are continuing to exert influence and engage in violent activities.''



Democratic Unionist justice spokesman Mr Paisley Jnr laid the blame for the releases with Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble because of his support for the Good Friday Agreement.



The North Antrim MLA said he was ``utterly disgusted that the only tangible legacy David Trimble has left Northern Ireland is the mass release of killers onto the province's streets''.



``That is a sobering thought indeed, but it is made worse by the fact that while they are being released, there has been absolutely nothing tangible in terms of terrorist decommissioning.



``They are being released onto the streets and are as armed to the teeth as they were before.''



The Conservatives' Northern Ireland spokesman Andrew Mackay (correct) claimed in the absence of any decommissioning, it was wrong for the Government to go ahead with the scheme.



The Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary argued: ``Peter Mandelson should not release these prisoners until a credible and verifiable process of putting all illegal arms and explosives beyond use has actually begun.



``The Government was prepared to let the timetable for decommissioning slip. It should be prepared to do the same on the release of prisoners.''



However, the prisoner releases were defended by the Progressive Unionists who are the political representatives of the loyalist group, the Ulster Volunteer Force.



East Belfast Assemblyman David Ervine, who was sentenced to 11 years in 1975 for transporting a loyalist bomb in a stolen car, said while he understood people's concerns, the scheme was for the greater good.



The Progressive Unionist MLA told BBC1's Breakfast with Frost programme: ``There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who are alive that might be dead were it not for changing circumstances in Northern Ireland.



``Next week for the first time in my lifetime, there will be no political prisoners in Northern Ireland. Now that has got to be a watershed.''



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