A senior Orangeman who ruled out any meeting between the Order and Sinn Fein for at least a generation has defended his presence at an art exhibition by loyalist serial killer Michael Stone.
range grand secretary Rev Mervyn Gibson was speaking as a storm broke out after it emerged Stone — convicted of murdering six people — displayed his artwork at an exhibition in east Belfast while on overnight release from Maghaberry Prison last month.
The launch of the Milestones exhibition was held in a community centre run by the Reach project on the Newtownards Road in the run-up to the Twelfth.
The one-week exhibition was produced by Stone and his wife Karen.
Rev Gibson told the Belfast Telegraph he was aware that Stone would be present at the event. He stressed that he was there in a personal capacity, as a local minister and a community activist in east Belfast.
“I was invited as the event took place in my parish and I am also a director of Reach,” he said.
“The organisation is involved in community development and committed to moving former paramilitaries down the road of peace, so it was an obvious thing to go to.
“The event had nothing to do with the Orange Order.”
In July, Rev Gibson said there was “not a remote possibility” that the Orange Order will meet with Sinn Fein. “Maybe in a generation’s time or two generations’ time, but certainly not this generation,” he had said.
When pressed on how his meeting with Stone could appear at odds with that position, Rev Gibson said: “The Grand Lodge of Ireland has unanimously decided not to meet Sinn Fein because we have 355 members who were murdered, many of them by the IRA and republicans.
“Those families would be further hurt if the institution met those who were responsible for the murders.
“People might not like that line but we are a democratic organisation and we stand by that decision. I served in the police for many years protecting all sides of the community.
“I have repeatedly condemned the violence and terrorism of the past from all sides. I have sat in the same room as Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly, along with many other senior IRA figures.”
The exhibition launch was also attended by former DUP MLA Sammy Douglas and DUP councillor George Dorrian.
Mr Dorrian was unavailable for comment yesterday, but in a statement the DUP said: “Councillor Dorrian, like all DUP representatives, condemns all acts of terrorism, including the evil deeds committed by Michael Stone.”
The brother of Dermot Hackett, who was murdered by Stone in 1987, told the BBC his family should have been informed the killer was eligible for day release.
“I think it’s right that we should be told, because he did affect our lives and our families,” he said.
“I would hate to think that some of my immediate family or near relatives would happen to walk up the street in Belfast and see him walking up the street towards them. I think it’s only right, they should have at least let us know.”
The Department of Justice said the Victim Information Scheme, which is in place to provide victims with information about releases and community sentences, is operated by the Probation Board and Prison Service.
“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,” it said.
A third of the proceeds raised from the event were due to be donated to the Muscular Dystrophy UK charity, with the rest going to Stone and his family. However, since learning how the money was raised, the charity has decided to decline the funds.
The charity said: “We were not aware that Mr Stone had work on show at the Milestones exhibition.
“After careful consideration, we will be declining the money raised at the event.”