Northern Ireland news

Sentence Review Commissioners do have legal power to consider jailed loyalist killer Michael Stone's bid to be freed early

Michael Stone

SENTENCE Review Commissioners do have legal power to consider jailed loyalist killer Michael Stone's bid to be freed early for a second time, a High Court judge ruled yesterday.

Lord Justice McCloskey rejected claims by the sister of one of the Milltown Cemetery bomber's victims that the body has no jurisdiction to determine his bid to be released again under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

The decision represents a blow in Deborah McGuinness's battle to ensure 64-year-old Stone remains behind bars.

Acknowledging his decision will disappoint bereaved relatives, the judge stressed conditions have to be met before the convicted murderer can be declared eligible for release.

Stone must not be a supporter of any outlawed organisation, or considered likely to become involved in terrorist acts, he pointed out.

"The SRC must be satisfied that he would not be a danger to the public," Lord Justice McCloskey added.

"Ms McGuinness must not under-estimate the strengths and importance of these statutory safeguards."

Stone is currently serving a 30-year term for waging a sectarian murder campaign.

Ms McGuinness's brother, Thomas McErlean, was among three mourners he killed in an attack on an IRA funeral at the west Belfast graveyard in March 1988.

Stone was also the gunman in three other killings.

In 2000 the ex-UDA man was freed early as part of the Good Friday Agreement arrangements.

Six years later, however, he was sent back to jail after trying to enter Parliament Buildings at Stormont, armed with explosives, knives and an axe, in an attempt to murder Sinn Fein 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.

Stone is pursuing two separate legal routes aimed at achieving another release from prison.

In October the Supreme Court in London will hear his attempt to overturn a verdict that he must now remain in jail until 2024.

He also went before an SRC panel last month to appeal their preliminary indication that his application to be freed early for a second time should be refused.

The Commissioners have not published any final determination pending the outcome of the challenge to their jurisdiction.

Ms McGuinness's lawyers argued that there is no entitlement to any second chance at being freed early.

But Stone's barristers, David Scoffield QC and Richard McConkey, contended that the legislation does not limit the times a prisoner can seek release.

Ruling on the case, Lord Justice McCloskey identified no prohibition in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998.

He confirmed: "I consider that the SRC is legally competent to determine the further application which it has received from Mr Stone under the 1998 Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act and rules made thereunder."

Before rising, however, he emphasised that any decision reached by the Commission will be "vulnerable to legal challenge".

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