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Thursday, May 14, 1998 Published at 21:41 GMT 22:41 UK

Notorious prisoner applauded
image: [ Michael Stone is shepherded to the platform at the rally ]
Michael Stone is shepherded to the platform at the rally

The loyalist prisoner Michael Stone, who opened fire on mourners at a republican funeral in Belfast 10 years ago, has received a rapturous welcome at a rally in Belfast.

Stone, 42, killed three people and injured more than 60 during an IRA funeral in what became known as the Milltown Cemetery massacre in 1988.

[ image: Michael Stone: thought of as a hero by some loyalists]
Michael Stone: thought of as a hero by some loyalists
He was granted home leave from the Maze Prison and attended a rally on the Good Friday agreement and the forthcoming referendum at the Ulster Hall.

The rally came hours after Prime Minister Tony Blair told a gathering in Belfast that there would be no "fudge between democracy and terror."

Stone's release and appearance follows the earlier release from the Maze of republican paramilitary prisoners to attend a Sinn Fein conference.

Applause for Stone

More than 1,000 people cheered and stamped their feet as Stone strode down the aisle towards the platform at the rally organised by the Ulster Democratic Party, which represents loyalist paramilitary groups.

He marched on to the platform to join senior politicians from the UDP, who were due to address the loyalists packed into the hall, which was decked with UDA banners calling for a Yes vote in the May 22 referendum.

There were shouts of "We want Michael Stone" from the audience.

The UDP's John White told the packed rally: "The IRA have lost the war. This agreement should be supported because it copper-fastens our victory."

He welcomed Stone to the platform and thanked UDA prisoners for their support.

Criticism of release

[ image: Michael Stone being escorted from court]
Michael Stone being escorted from court
Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Andrew MacKay strongly criticised Stone's release and attendance at the rally.

He said: "Loyalist terrorist murderer Stone should not be allowed out of prison to attend the Yes rally any more than the IRA prisoners allowed out at the weekend to cavort at the Sinn Fein conference.

"Terrorist murderers should only be allowed out under supervision for the most urgent humanitarian reason and not to play politics. Two wrongs do not make a right."

Meanwhile, one of the most senior loyalist paramilitary members, Sam McCrory, has said "the war is over."

McCrory, who is one of the Ulster Defence Association leaders in the Maze prison, told BBC Northern Ireland that he would like to apologise to the victims of loyalist violence.

"I hope we can look forward and not look back," he said.

He offered the apology on behalf of the UDA and the Ulster Freedom Fighters.

He added: "We have the view that the war is over."

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