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Loyalist killer Stone's legal challenge to jail term to be heard in court with social distancing

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Michael Stone on parole from Maghaberry prison in 2019

Michael Stone on parole from Maghaberry prison in 2019

Michael Stone, pictured in January 2020

Michael Stone, pictured in January 2020

Michael Stone is tackled by security officers as he entered Stormont in 2006

Michael Stone is tackled by security officers as he entered Stormont in 2006

Michael Stone on parole from Maghaberry prison in 2019

Milltown Cemetery bomber Michael Stone's legal bid to overturn a ruling that he must spend at least four more years in jail will be heard next month, it was has been confirmed.

Senior judges said social distancing restrictions can be put in place to enable the loyalist killer's appeal to proceed at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast.

Stone is currently serving a 30-year sentence for waging a sectarian campaign involving six murders.

He was freed early under the Good Friday Agreement in 2000, but returned to prison six years later for attempting to kill Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at Stormont.

In January 2019 the High Court held that the Department of Justice had wrongly determined Stone is eligible for potential release on parole.

According to that ruling he must remain behind bars until July 2024 at the earliest.

The finding came in a legal challenge mounted by the sister of one of 64-year-old Stone's victims.

Deborah McGuinness's brother, Thomas McErlean, was among three mourners murdered in the infamous grenade attack on an IRA funeral at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast in March 1988.

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Loyalist Michael Stone attacks mourners at Milltown Cemetery in 1988

Loyalist Michael Stone attacks mourners at Milltown Cemetery in 1988

Loyalist Michael Stone attacks mourners at Milltown Cemetery in 1988

Stone initially attempted to mount an appeal at the Supreme Court.

However, justices in London said they did not have jurisdiction to hear the case.

Instead, the former UDA man is going before the Court of Appeal in Belfast in an attempt to reverse the ruling in Ms McGuinness's case.

At a review hearing on Wednesday, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan told lawyers participating remotely that a live hearing can be facilitated.

"We have noticed in particular that there's a great deal of space in the Nisi Prius court," Sir Declan explained.

"As long as the hearing is limited to the legal representatives and the press."

Extensions may also be made to ensure the three appeal judges can maintain social distancing.

Penciling in a hearing in early June, Sir Declan added: "We will check staff arrangements and notify the parties of the date."

The case centres on the High Court finding that the six years Stone spent out on licence should not count towards his minimum term of imprisonment.

As well as killing three people in the Milltown attack, he was also the gunman in another three murders.

Milkman Patrick Brady was shot dead in south Belfast in November 1984, 12 months before joiner Kevin McPolin was gunned down in Lisburn, Co Antrim.

Stone's return to prison followed his infamous assault on Parliament Buildings in 2006.

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Michael Stone is tackled by security officers as he entered Stormont in 2006

Michael Stone is tackled by security officers as he entered Stormont in 2006

Michael Stone is tackled by security officers as he entered Stormont in 2006

He denied it had been a bid to kill the Sinn Fein politicians, instead claiming it was an act pf performance art.

In 2013 he was told that he must serve the remainder of his 30-year sentence.

Stone's case was then referred to Parole Commissioners on the basis that he has now served that minimum term.

However, Ms McGuinness claimed the Department unlawfully included the six years he spent out on licence before the attack on Stormont.

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Michael Stone, pictured in January 2020

Michael Stone, pictured in January 2020

Michael Stone, pictured in January 2020

Her legal team insisted he should not be considered eligible for release until 2024 - when a full 30 years will have been served in custody.

They successfully argued it was required for a sentence imposed to punish and deter Stone from any future offences.

Belfast Telegraph