Billy Wright: Dying by the Sword

  • 1 February 1998
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The murder of LVF leader Billy Wright has ignited the most violent spell in the North's recent history and threatened the peace process. He may well have considered it an appropriate legacy. By Emer Woodful


It's New Year's Eve in Belfast. The Christmas tree's winking, and we're all sitting at a big fire, popping open a bottle of champagne. We turn on the radio to hear the midnight chimes of Big Ben. To a New Year. And then the plummy Radio 4 newsreader announces the echoing, silencing news that a Catholic man's been shot dead in North Belfast. Thirty-one-year-old Eddie Treanor, shot dead while out having a drink in his girlfriend's local, the Clifton Tavern, on Cliftonville Road. The second reprisal for the killing dead in the Maze prison, four days earlier, of LVF leader Billy Wright by two INLA men.

Billy Wright's death won't be mourned by nationalists. A sign daubed on a wall near the area of the killing said “King Rat: May He Rot In Hell.”

Then, ten days later, 28-year-old Catholic cross-community worker Terry Enright is gunned down outside a nightclub in Belfast, in the next LVF killing. At a press conference the next day announcing the Progressive Unionist Party's return to the talks process, its leader, David Ervine, said that “a fine young man has lost his life, caused by some obscure group of headcases receiving political direction from anonymous but respectable politicians.”

Whatever about the long-term implications of the killing of Billy Wright, what we do know is that he was, for some, the working-class hero who represented the fear and alienation that many unionists feel about what they see as the threat to their culture, and a situation where the union would not be the same.
On New Year's Day, even the Church of Ireland primate, Robin Eames, spoke of the deep feeling of resentment among Protestants over the British government's handling of the peace process. He said that Northern Ireland was “at the beginning of a very dark and very dangerous period.”

What made Wright stand out, however, was that he openly supported violence and was prepared to die for the union. He did strike a chord among loyalists who believe that the republican movement won concessions through violence and that loyalists should be following the same course—and even, regardless of any possible concessions, that it was worth dying rather than deny the union anyway. Some commentators say he was nothing but a maverick. But he was able to defy the Combined Loyalist Military Command's death threat against him in the summer of 1996, and in doing so he got the support of about 5,000 people, and the DUP's Willie McCrea, at a rally in his hometown of Portadown.

He did strike fear into the hearts of Catholics. All the shops in Portadown, even Dunnes Stores, closed obediently, “as a mark of respect” for his funeral. His constituency was not that of the Ulster Unionist middle classes but of the poorer, angry, younger men.

So just who was Billy Wright? “I am a mid-Ulster loyalist…and I can equate my feelings to 97 per cent of the unionist population,” he told me when I met him twice in the summer of 1996. Wright, said to have been the former mid-Ulster commander of the UVF, had just played a pivotal role in the Drumcree standoff. Our last meeting was on 29 August 1996, the day before the expiration of the Combined Loyalist Military Command's death threat against him and Alex Kerr, the former UDA commander in South Belfast.

The drill was that you phoned Wright, got picked up in a car park and were driven to his home, via a number of safety checks. The car slowed down at different houses, and a wave was given, and returned, from behind a curtain. Then, later, a mysterious wave, and a nod to a dark figure concealed in a big hedge, just at the entrance to his housing estate in Portadown.

And there, in his neat sitting-room, in his fairly large detached house with a manicured garden, rich with flowers, and complete with a basketball hoop, sat Billy Wright. A trim 36-year-old then, who didn't drink or smoke, who had tattoos, dressed in denim, wore a gold ear-ring, and talked about his little dog Levi, who'd just had an operation. All around were the little china religious plaques announcing things like “Jesus' Name Is Sweet To Every Ear.” In the Laura Ashley–style room, with bordered wallpaper, his partner serves coffee in pottery mugs. All so normal, except for a feeling of tight control and anger that sometimes seeps through the man who's said to have ordered the random killing of a Catholic man on 7 July, the day before the Drumcree standoff. Lurgan taxi driver Eddie McGoldrick had just had a new baby and had also just graduated from Queens University.

Wright denied having had anything to do with it, and said that he was “arrested for public consumption” and knew of no loyalist involvement in the killing. The UVF and the UDA also denied any involvement, and Wright offered the completely unfounded suggestion that it may have been a drug-related killing.

That killing is said to have added to the rift between Wright and the CLMC, who were backing the cease-fire. There had been growing unease among Wright and his supporters, and the UVF, which was said to be angry about the violence at Drumcree, the McGoldrick killing and the moving further away from any dialogue. As a result, in August 1996, after Drumcree, the UVF issued a statement saying it had stood down one of its units in Portadown.

It is believed that Wright, and Alex Kerr, then set up the Loyalist Volunteer Force, which led to their being issued with the CLMC's death threat. It stated that “failure to comply with this directive [to leave Northern Ireland within 72 hours] will result in summary justice for your treasonable and subversive activities.”

At the time, support for the pair came from the DUP's Ian Paisley junior, who said that “any death threat on any individual by any organization is contemptible and reprehensible, and I condemn it with every ounce of strength I have,” he said.

There was a quite a fuss about Wright's having met the UUP leader David Trimble at Drumcree. Wright had manned the barricades, fortified with a mechanical digger and a slurry tank filled with petrol that could have been sprayed over the security forces in the event of any battle developing. The newspaper headlines barked banners like “Mallon Accuses Trimble of Breaking the Law” and “Trimble's Talk with Wright Raises Queries about His Refusal to Meet Garvaghy Group.”

The SDLP accused Mr Trimble of “breathtaking hypocrisy,” and Bob McCartney of the UK Unionists said the meeting was “questionable.” Wright himself said David Trimble had asked him to intervene to prevent any violence. When asked why he was at Drumcree if he wasn't even a member of the Orange Order, Wright replied, “How dare you, dear, how dare you…my family's buried at Drumcree. I will not let you tell me where I can or cannot go, or that I cannot speak to my MP at a time when your government is speaking to the IRA.”

It was difficult to try and figure out Billy Wright, the man who described the cease-fire as the “happiest day of my life,” who had worked in the past as a religious preacher, but who'd abandoned practising his beloved religion because of the dilemma he saw in his support for violence. He told me, “I believe that true Protestantism is about faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. You're quite right to say that if you were practising that faith then you couldn't align it to your other beliefs.”

Two of his sisters were married to Catholics. He'd no problem with Catholics per se, he said. “I lived among nationalist people, I grew up with them,” he said. “I'd no difficulty with them. If only the IRA and Sinn Féin would recognize our right to exist, to be British, then I believe the two communities…could come together, and a new form of life within a British context could evolve.”

Indeed, he had grown up mixing with Catholics in South Armagh. Although he was born in England, he'd returned to Northern Ireland at the age of four and settled in the mainly Protestant village of Mountnorris. He played Gaelic football with Catholics in nearby Whitecross and, unusually, also learned Irish history. He moved to Portadown and, when he was 15, was jailed for six years for possession of a firearm and hijacking.

His involvement in violence started, he told me, because he saw his neighbours being “systematically murdered.” Three of his own family were killed: his uncle, who was a member of the Salvation Army, his father-in-law and his brother-in-law.
“You know,” he said, “when you've looked into the coffins of the ones you love, and you've heard the feeble excuses coming from nationalists, words weren't good enough.”

He would never condemn any loyalist paramilitary killings. He always tried to justify them by arguing that all the people killed by the loyalists were involved with the IRA. But that simply was not the truth.

Many ordinary Catholics were among the 41 people killed by the brutal band of the UVF's Mid-Ulster Brigade.
Seventy-nine-year-old Rose Anne Mallon, shot dead while answering the phone in her Dungannon home. Two teenage girls killed while serving in a mobile shop in a Craigavon housing estate, and the man who tried to help, also gunned down. Two young schoolboys shot on their lunch break while in an amusement arcade in Armagh, and the Foxes, a couple in their late seventies, killed in their isolated farmhouse in Moy.

What of their families? “I can understand their feelings,” he said, “and as a man who has buried three of his own family I can sympathize with them. Nevertheless, I hold my views dear to my heart, and I think, by and large, that the unionist population has been the biggest victim in all of this conflict.”

A real family irony is that Wright's own grandfather, a Presbyterian, is said to have suffered discrimination from fellow Protestants because he spoke out against Catholic discrimination and actually stood for election, as an independent, against the big unionist party, and won. The grandson also put it up to the Ulster Unionists, in a different way.

“King Rat” took the violent path. He did two further spells in prison. In 1982 he was charged with murder and attempted murder, on the evidence of UVF supergrass Clifford MacKeown, and Wright spent a year in prison on remand. But the charges were dropped when McKeown retracted his evidence. It was in prison, however, that Wright started reading the Bible, and when he was released in 1983 he decided to “live quietly through Christ.” But two developments propelled him back to violence and away from his faith: the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and the publication of the Framework Document. He saw the setting up of the joint secretariat at Maryfield and the role for the Irish government as a betrayal. The man who told me that he was the “first leading loyalist to call for a loyalist cease-fire” believed that the Framework Document meant that the “unionist people were to go into a united Ireland.” But what of the fact that, under the terms of the Framework Document, any unity could only ever happen if there was democratic consent for it? “Now please don't insult us,” he said. “We have the Framework Document, and we have calls for it to be imposed…Please don't tell us nothing will be imposed.”
The Irish Constitution was also one of his mantras. He felt it “justified the murder of British citizens, and having spent many years in the H Blocks,” he said, and having “listened to young nationalists singing their songs, believe me they draw their opinions because of their education, and because they are brought up to believe they have a right, because of that constitution, to take away this land.”

Billy Wright was back in prison last year, listening to those songs. He was given eight years for threatening to kill a Portadown woman, Gwen Reed, whom he'd known for 20 years. The incident happened in Portadown, just two weeks before I first met him—and heard his many denials of any involvement in violence. What happened was that seven masked men, armed with sledgehammers and pickaxes, attacked the boyfriend of the woman's daughter, in a punishment beating. The woman's daughter Nicola tried to shield her boyfriend, and was injured. The next day, Wright told Mrs Reed that “I'm going to fucking shoot you,” after he'd also warned her son that “I'm coming after you.” The judge said he found Wright's evidence “utterly unconvincing.”

After the hearing, the Reed family had to leave Northern Ireland, and they are now in a witness-protection scheme in Britain.

So just where was the compromise in this man who talked of dearly wanting peace? The father of two girls and two boys, divorced and in a second relationship, who wished for his children that “there would be peace and reconciliation, and that the country would flourish.”

It seemed what he really wanted was total victory and total peace. He didn't think so. He wanted the “constitutional issue solved” (within a British context), he said, and felt that then the “parades issue and similar things like that could be settled without the underlying threat of it being more devious than it appears.”

And there he was, calmly drinking coffee in that same sitting room with the stripy wallpaper, where the armed, and hooded colour party later stood guard over his Lenin-lookalike corpse, with the thin face and the tiny pencil-line beard.

He'd one eye on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the other on the big window, vetting each car that drove up the cul-de-sac. “My heart goes out to my family at a time like this.” But he seemed so unafraid. “Well, if you think you're right, then you're right. And I have done nothing wrong except express an opinion that's the prevalent opinion of the people of Northern Ireland, and I will always do that, dear, no matter what the price.” The weird calmness from a man who's survived gun and bomb attacks. “Well, I've been prepared to die for long many a year. I don't wish to die, but at the end of the day no one will force their opinions down my throat—no one.”
Since Billy Wright's death [and at the time of going to press], eight Catholics and one Protestant have been murdered. And even while Wright was in prison last year, the LVF is believed to have been responsible for the killings of two GAA men, Seán Brown, in Derry, and Gerry Devlin, from Glengormley. There have also been the many attacks on churches. Only time will answer the questions of whether Billy Wright really was just a maverick, and whether he'll be an inspiration for others, and in his death become a hydra-headed killer.