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Michael Stone: Loyalist icon

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- A lifelong supporter of the loyalist (pro-British Protestant) cause in Northern Ireland, Michael Stone first came to widespread public attention on March 16, 1988 when he launched a suicidal lone attack on an IRA funeral in Milltown Cemetery, West Belfast.

On Friday he was once again in the news after sparking a security alert at Northern Ireland's Stormont Parliamentary Building by attempting to spray-paint "Sinn Fein are murderers," on the building's entrance.

Accosted by security guards, he then threw a bag into the building claiming it contained a bomb.

Although there were no casualties, the disturbance echoed Stone's infamous 1988 attack.

In that incident he arrived in the Milltown Cemetery with the avowed aim of assassinating leading republican figures Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who had gathered there for the burial of three IRA activists shot dead in Gibraltar a week previously by the SAS.

Armed with hand grenades and two pistols -- a Browning 9mm and a .357 Magnum revolver -- Stone missed his intended targets, but killed three other people (only one of whom was an IRA member) and injured 60 more, including pensioners and children.

He was eventually overpowered by mourners and would have been beaten to death had he not been dragged to safety and arrested by members of the RUC (he still walks with a slight limp as a result of the dislocated thigh bone he received in the aftermath of the attack).

In his subsequent trial, at which he pleaded not guilty but refused to utter a word, he was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years' imprisonment for a total of six murders -- those of the three Milltown mourners, plus another three Catholics shot dead between 1984-1987 -- as well as five attempted murders.

Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement, however, he was paroled early from the Maze prison in 2000, after serving only 12 years.

The Milltown Massacre, as it came to be known, was one of the most shocking and widely publicized of all the atrocities committed during Northern Ireland's "troubles."

Images of a bearded Stone jogging through the cemetery firing indiscriminately at mourners were beamed around the world, and turned the Protestant militant into, respectively, a demon-figure for Catholic republicans and an icon to die-hard loyalists (images of him still appear on murals in staunchly Protestant areas of Belfast).

'I like Rambo'

Born in 1955 -- there is some confusion about the precise date of his birth -- Stone grew up in the fiercely sectarian Braniel Housing Estate in Protestant east Belfast.

Drawn into militant loyalism from an early age, he joined the infamous Tartan Gang at the age of 13 and was an active member of the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA) by the time he was 16.

By his own admission he lead a double life, rubbing sand and dirt into his clothes to persuade those nearest to him that he was working as a builder when in fact he was out on paramilitary "operations."

He had already served a prison sentence in Belfast's notorious Crumlin Road jail for possession of firearms when he hatched his plan for the Milltown attack, the provocation for which he subsequently claimed was the 1987 IRA bombing of a Poppy Day memorial service at Enniskillen in which 11 people lost their lives.

Despite the callous brutality of the Milltown attack -- he would later describe how in his mind he "dehumanized" his victims, viewing them as "targets" rather than actual people -- his fanatical loyalism seemed to mellow slightly during his 12 years in prison.

As leader of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) -- another name for the UDA -- he supported the Good Friday Agreement, meeting the UK's then Cabinet minister for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam in 1998.

"I've had songs and poems written about me," he said in a 2003 interview with Magill Magazine, "And I've met plenty of kids who think I'm some kind of hero.

"I'm like Rambo to them. But I always say that there's nothing romantic about taking a life. People bleed, and there's no Hollywood director to say 'cut.' You get to hear their dying words, see the final seconds of their life. I was trained to block out the human aspect."

Lauded by loyalist supporters on his release in July 2000, he has maintained a relatively low profile since, living in east Belfast with his partner -- he has nine children and three grandchildren -- and spending his time painting and doing community work with Protestant children and former prisoners (he remains under death threat from dissident republicans).

He published his autobiography, "None Shall Divide Us," in 2004, and while he has, until today's incident at Stormont, steered clear of violent activism, he has refused to fully abjure his former militancy.

"If I was to say sorry, I believe it would fall on deaf ears," he has said in an interview with the BBC. "I would be called a hypocrite. Those operations were military operations. I do not regret any fatalities that have occurred."


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