| 7.2°C Belfast

Loner Stone with a 'penchant for publicity'

He was once a loyalist hero who lorded it around the streets of Belfast, rarely having to put his hand in his pocket.

But today Michael Stone returned to jail a broken man and a laughing stock.

Hardly any of his old associates were in the city’s Crown Court to watch the killer, who suffers from crippling arthritis, limp from the dock after his verdict was delivered.

And as the notorious paramilitary prepared to resume a life behind bars, a former friend branded him a loner who had become more obsessed with the limelight than loyalism.

It was the 53-year-old’s yearning for attention that was the real motivation for his crackpot bid to storm Parliament Buildings, Stormont, two years ago while the Northern Ireland Assembly was in session, according to an ex-prisoner who once shared the same wing at the Maze Jail.

"Even in prison we always wondered what was bigger for Michael, his ego or the cause," he said.

Stone achieved instant notoriety after murdering three people at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast in 1988 when he launched a gun and grenade attack on mourners at the funerals of three IRA volunteers shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar.

It was a incident that formed part of one of the darkest chapters of the entire Troubles, propelling a previously low-key paramilitary with long hair, dark features and manic eyes on to the front pages and TV screen.

Suddenly he was the toast of every loyalist drinking den.

Then, three days later, at the funeral of one of Stone’s victims, two British Army corporals who inadvertently drove into the cortege were dragged from their car, beaten and shot dead.

Murals depicting the UDA man’s actions at Milltown soon appeared on gable walls in Protestant estates and the bulletproof vest he wore was apparently sold for £10,000 at auction in a loyalist club in Scotland.

Like at Stormont, his target that day had been Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

Republicans chased and eventually grabbed him as he retreated towards the nearby M1 motorway, but police who arrived managed to pull him free and save his life.

It later emerged that this was not his first mission to kill.

He owned up to a string of others as well - all of them assassinations of Catholics and republicans, although his admissions to at least three have been questioned.

It has been claimed that he was prepared to take the rap for other killers who were never held to account.

He was sentenced to almost 700 years and sent to the Maze on the outskirts of Lisburn, Co Antrim, where his closest pals included another loyalist paramilitary boss, Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair.

Despite Stone’s antics at Stormont and his bizarre attempt to defend it as an act of performance art, old associates said he would always be revered in loyalist circles for what happened at Milltown - despite his humiliating fall from grace.

"People within loyalism were disappointed, shocked even, by what Michael did at Stormont. They did not want to go back to those days," he said.

"But saying all that, he will always be held in high esteem within certain loyalist circles. He will always be remembered as the man that took the fight to the IRA."

It was in jail that he developed an interest in art and on release in 2000, under the terms of the Good Friday Peace Agreement, he began the process of reinventing himself as a painter, dabbling in the avant garde and surreal.

Many of his works fetched hefty prices - he once claimed they sold for as much as £30,000 - though whether buyers were attracted more by his talent or his infamy is debatable.

In 2003 he wrote his autobiography, None Shall Divide Us, charting his rise within the loyalist movement.

Critics dubbed it a Walter Mitty account of events, embellishing his role and influence within loyalism.

A former UDA colleague agreed that the father of nine, who also claimed to have come within inches of assassinating former London mayor Ken Livingstone in 1983, was never a big player in the movement.

"Michael was a peripheral figure, always was," he said.

"He was very much a loner."

During his trial he told the court a handwritten draft of a second autobiography, which he hid in a cupboard in his east Belfast apartment, went missing during police searches.

Initially the media lapped up the "killer turned artist" line, and in the years after his release he was never far from a TV camera, whether talking about his art or his past.

Arguably his most famous appearance came months before his attack on Stormont, when he took part in the BBC’s Facing The Truth programme.

Hosted by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the documentary brought together victims and perpetrators from the Troubles.

Stone’s meeting with the widow of Dermot Hackett - one of the other three people he claimed he killed before Milltown - made for uncomfortable viewing.

During the meeting Stone said he was not the man who pulled the trigger and for a moment Sylvia Hackett reached out to shake his hand, but she instantly recoiled and fled the room in tears.

But that incident aside, his appearances in front of the cameras were becoming fewer.

As Crown Prosecutor Charles Adair put it during his trial: "Your light was waning, you were becoming a nobody, and you wanted to propel yourself back into the public glare."

His assault on Stormont’s Parliament Buildings was his coup de grace, claimed Mr Adair.

"I suggest to you you’re an egocentric killer with a penchant for publicity who was completing unfinished business," he said.

"And your final act, killing Adams and McGuinness, that was what it was all about."

Belfast Telegraph