The murder of 'King Rat' Billy Wright

Billy Wright was murdered in the Maze prison two days after Christmas Day 1997. The notorious paramilitary was shot while sitting in a van awaiting transport to the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) visiting area in the Maze. The 37 year old was accompanied in the van by two prison guards when it was ambushed by three INLA prisoners, two of them armed. The assassins climbed through a hole in an "undetected and unobserved section of security fencing" between the prisoners' yard and a low roof. They crossed the roof onto the forecourt where the van stood. One man held the driver hostage while another opened fire on Wright inside the van.

The 2004 Cory Collusion Inquiry outlined the brutality of the murder:

"[Wright] faced his killers and moved forward in an attempt to attack them. Even though he was shot at least six times he continued to lash out at his killers until he was struck by the fatal bullet."

The INLA murderers surrendered immediately and admitted to the murder. They served short sentences and were released under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The retired Canadian judge Peter Cory was hired by the British and Irish governments to investigate alleged collusion of Northern security forces in the murders of Wright and three other victims of the Troubles - Pat Finucane, Robert Hamill and Rosemary Nelson. Cory found that the actions of the prison service leading up to and during Wright's murder merited a further public inquiry. The inquiry costing £30 million (€36 million) was set up in 2004 and was chaired by Lord MacLean. Its findings will be read out by Northern Secretary Owen Paterson in the House of Commons today.

Likelihood of collusion

The Cory Report outlines a series of security blunders by the prison service that led to Wright's murder.

Wright was originally jailed at Maghaberry prison for threatening the lives of a witness and her son. On 26 April 1997 he was transferred to the Maze. Six days later, on 2 May, two of the INLA men who eventually killed Wright, Christopher McWilliams and John Kennaway were also transferred to the Maze.

Cory wrote that "significantly, just prior to their transfer, McWilliams and Kennaway had orchestrated a hostage-taking incident at Maghaberry which was designed to culminate in the murder of Billy Wright". McWilliams and Kennaway had obtained firearms for the attempted murder at Magharberry.

Depsite this, Wright and other LVF members were housed in the same prison block as Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) prisoners. Cory criticised the security forces for this arrangement and outlined the following additional security lapses:

  • The possession of firearms by McWilliams and Kennaway while they were located in H Block 6 after it was known that they had obtained firearms in Maghaberry.
  • The circulation of the lists of visits for both the INLA and LVF prisoners on the 27 December 1997.
  • The standing down of the guard for the Observation Tower overlooking A and B wings [in H Block H6 where INLA prisoners resided]
  • The failure to have repaired or replaced the important but malfunctioning camera overlooking A and B wings
  • The positioning of the van in the forecourt of H6 on the morning of the murder.

None of these incidents singularly stand up to collusion, but the cumulation of security oversights merited further investigation, Cory believed. 

"Prepared to die for the union"

Softly-spoken and reported to be gentle in manner, Wright had a reputation as a ruthless killer. He was leader of the Mid Ulster Brigade of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) which is implicated in 40 murders.

It was during the standoff at Drumcree in 1996 that Wright was ostracised by the UVF leadership. Increasingly impatient with unionist tactics around Drumcree and frustrated by the ongoing ceasefire, Wright ordered the murder of several Catholics in contravention of UVF orders.

The Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) demanded that Wright leave Northern Ireland within 72 hours or be killied. Wright defied the order and set up the Loyalist LVF with other members of the Mid Ulster Brigade.

Wright commanded the loyalty of his followers. A profile of Wright in Magill written shortly after his death wrote that Wright stood out because "he openly supported violence and was prepared to die for the union". Wright is reported to have been directly involved in the murder of 20 people; at the 1996 Drumcree standoff, Wright manned the barricades which contained a slurry tank filled with petrol in anticipation of a standoff with security forces (see Magill below).

His tactics and defiance of the CLMC earned him a loyal support. Magill reported that 5,000 people had attended a rally in support of Wright in Portadown. The reporter Emer Woodful described her journey through a labyrinth of security to interview Wright during the period of the CLMC threat. The death threat was ultimately lifted following the success of the LVF.

Wright's father David told Suzanne Breen of the Sunday Tribune that Billy "was a roadblock to the political process at the time and they were determined to remove him". This may be true of his unionist opponents, but those who ultimately murdered Wright deny that the peace process was their motivation. The INLA were known by the Northern security forces to have targeted Wright. The prison service is expected to be heavily criticised for its part in Wright's murder in today's report.

Profile and interview - "Dying by the sword" by Emer Woodful, Magill February 1998

Billy Wright - Magill 1998

Cory Collusion Inquiry, 2004

Cory Collusion Inquiry Billy Wright


Drumcree - here we go again

The short but violent history of the LVF

Tribute song to Billy Wright

Sinn Fein statement ahead of report's publication

Article from The People on Cory Inquiry, April 2004