Michael Stone: Back in the news but yesterday's man, the demise of a loyalist monster
Until his jailhouse wedding this week, Michael Stone had spent the past decade like the forgotten prisoner in Alexander Dumas' Man in the Iron Mask. But Henry McDonald remembers a pitiless sectarian killer... and unlikely early champion of the peace process.
Multiple murderer. Fine art painter. Peace process supporter. Assassination-performance artist. Ladies' man (even behind bars). For those of you not old enough to remember him way back when, here are the many sides of graveyard killer Michael Stone.
It is hard to grasp that it is actually 10 years since the now 61-year-old loyalist last hit the headlines, when he entered the Stormont parliament armed with a knife and a noose, threatening to kill Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams.
For an entire post-Troubles generation, Stone's name is as distant and irrelevant as the famous actors, or footballers, your parents, or grandparents, might go on about, comparing them unfavourably to the stars of screen, or football, today.
A decade ago, after he was put back in prison for his televised (and mildly ridiculous) attempt to kill the two Sinn Fein leaders - something he put down in his defence to "performance art", rather than a genuine murder bid - Stone has resembled Alexander Dumas' Man in the Iron Mask; the forgotten prisoner from a bygone era, rotting away unnoticed, marooned on the island of irrelevance while the rest of his contemporaries, including old UDA comrades, have either moved on, or died.
Yet, we forget what a significant - if sinister - figure Stone cut during the 1980s in the UDA's killing-machine and how, during the 1990s, while behind bars, he became the inspiration to a fresh wave of young recruits to militant Ulster loyalism.
In the first half of the 1980s, Stone murdered three Catholic civilians, including a bread delivery man, a milkman and a joiner. In the latter half, he shot dead Sinn Fein councillor John Joe Davey and then became infamous around the world for his televised gun-and-grenade attack on the IRA 'Gibraltar Three' funerals, during which he killed three mourners at Milltown cemetery in west Belfast.
Overnight, the bearded, chunky-framed, long-haired loyalist became a cult hero to younger loyalists. There was sick graffiti praising his exploits in Protestant working-class areas and those who followed him down that violent path, such as Johnny Adair, later told this writer that Stone's lone assault on the IRA funerals, in a spot so sacred to Belfast republicans, inspired them to join the UDA.
The jacket he wore on the day of the Milltown massacre was auctioned off for thousands of pounds during a fundraising party in Scotland for loyalist prisoners. The Ballad of Michael Stone was penned and sold via the UDA's magazine, Ulster. And, after his incarceration in the Maze prison, Stone received mailbags stuffed with letters from loyalists - not only in Northern Ireland, but further afield, including legions of young women offering to become his girlfriend.
Stone's attraction and fascination with his female admirers is alleged to have been the main cause of his falling-out with Adair, who once regarded the now pig-tailed east Belfast UDA prisoner as an icon.
We cannot verify if 'Mad Dog' Adair's account of the fracturing of their relationship is accurate, but we can be certain that not only was power an aphrodisiac within the Ulster loyalist paramilitary underworld, the competition to be alluring to women proved, at times, to be a cause for internal jealousy, conflict and feuding.
It also seems strange, looking back to his final stand in the doorway of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2006, that, when the loyalist ceasefires were declared and moves were put in place to reach a political settlement, Stone was very much on-message in terms of the peace process.
This writer recalls vividly the night Stone - out on temporary release - marched into a packed Ulster Hall in 1998, just a few weeks before the referendum, to endorse the Good Friday Agreement, when thousands of UDA activists and their supporters greeted him as the returning hero.
By his presence on stage with senior figures of the Ulster Democratic Party, Stone sent out a signal that he was supporting the Belfast Agreement, which, by 2000, resulted in him walking free from prison, having served only around a decade of a 30-year life sentence for at least six murders - thanks to the Agreement's de facto amnesty for paramilitary prisoners.
The atmosphere in the concert hall was electrically menacing; the applause for the murderer thunderous.
While in jail, Stone had taken to painting and became a student of the radical Left-wing Dublin artist Brian Maguire, who was a regular visiting lecturer to prisoners on the H-Blocks.
After his early release, Stone had expressed an interest in pursuing a career as a painter and artist - something he used to comical effect when pleading a defence six years later after his botched attack at Stormont's Great Hall.
After a decade in obscurity, rotting away in Maghaberry prison, forgotten like Dumas' abandoned inmate, Stone is back on the tabloid front pages, once again capturing the headlines, but this time for reasons of love - not war.
It has been reported that Stone got married in Maghaberry on Monday in the jail's multi-faith religious centre. There were up to six guests, sandwiches and tray bakes to mark Stone tying the knot to an unnamed woman of whom we know little.
The behind-bars nuptials are just the latest in a number of romances the loyalist prisoner, who used to write smuggled letters from jail in the early-1990s with the pen-name 'Flint', has been engaged in.
If Stone serves out his full 30-year sentence, he has up to another decade to go before he can settle down with his new bride on the outside. By that time, he will be in his early 70s.
He will tell you, of course, that he has no regrets killing and going to jail for the Ulster loyalist cause - although, like many other veterans of the conflict, who declare defiantly "Je ne regrette rien", I sometimes doubt that.
What his life and the deaths he caused, however, go to show is that paramilitaries - even more than politicians - are subject to that prophecy-turned-cliche of Enoch Powell's: in the end, their careers all end in failure.