Northern Ireland news

Michael Stone could secure bid at UK's highest court to overturn ruling which keeps him in jail until 2024

Stone was returned to jail after attempting to enter Parliament Buildings at Stormont, armed with explosives, knives and an axe. Picture by Mal McCann

NOTORIOUS loyalist killer Michael Stone has secured a legal route to the UK's highest court in his bid to overturn a verdict that he must remain in jail until 2024.

Judges in Belfast yesterday certified a point of law of general public importance after being told the ruling could have potential consequences for nearly 150 others serving life sentences.

It means the Milltown Cemetery bomber can now request a hearing at the Supreme Court in London.

Stone is attempting to appeal a decision that six years he spent out on licence should not count towards his minimum term of imprisonment.

Earlier this month the High Court held the Department of Justice wrongly determined he is now eligible for possible release on parole.

Their finding came in a legal challenge mounted by the sister of one of Stone's victims.

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

Deborah McGuinness, who took the case, celebrates the court's ruling over the time Stone must spend behind bars. Picture by Hugh Russell.

Stone (63) was also the gunman in another three separate killings.

Milkman Patrick Brady was murdered in south Belfast in November 1984, 12 months before joiner Kevin McPolin was shot in the head in Lisburn, Co Antrim.

In May 1987 Dermott Hackett, a bread server, was found dead in his van between Drumquin and Omagh. He had been shot up to 16 times with a submachine gun.

Michael Stone victim Thomas McErlean.

Stone was freed early under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in 2000.

Six years later, however, he was returned to jail after attempting to enter Parliament Buildings at Stormont, armed with explosives, knives and an axe, in an attempt to murder Sinn Féin leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

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

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In 2013 he was told that he must serve the remainder of a 30-year sentence imposed for waging a sectarian murder campaign.

The ex-UDA man's case had been 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.

Her legal team insisted he should not be considered eligible for release until the full 30 years is served in custody.

Loyalist killer Michael Stone firing at mourners in Milltown cemetery in March 1988. Picture by Pacemaker

Backing Ms McGuinness's challenge, the court said he forfeited the benefits of his exceptional early release when he returned to terrorist crime.

The earliest date Stone might be released on parole licence will be around July 2024, judges held.

His application for leave to appeal the ruling had been adjourned for the department to disclose how many other cases could be affected.

In court yesterday it was revealed that 149 life sentence prisoners were released early under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998.

Fourteen of those subsequently had their licences revoked, including three who were later released again because their tariffs included time spent out on licence - periods of three, five and nearly seven years respectively.

According to the department those three individuals, others behind bars awaiting release, and the 135 ex-prisoners who are still out on licence could potentially be affected by the ruling, the court heard.

Loyalist killer Michael Stone gives the victory sign after he attemped to to enter Stormont armed with a gun and bombs and various other weapons. Picture by Mal McCann

Stone's barrister, David Scoffield QC, contended that the figures demonstrated how the case raises issues of significant public interest.

Despite refusing to grant leave to appeal to the Supreme Court, Mr Justice McCloskey confirmed: "We shall certify a point of law of general public importance."

A legal question will now be constructed for Supreme Court justices to consider deciding if they want to hear the appeal.

"We shall leave the interested party (Stone) to pursue that application in that same forum," Mr Justice McCloskey added.

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