Billy Wright – Ulster Loyalist
7 July 1960 – 27 December 1997
BILLY WRIGHT-LOYALIST HERO R.I.P
– Disclaimer –
The views and opinions expressed in these pages/documentaries are soley intended to educate and provide background information to those interested in the Troubles of Northern Ireland. They in no way reflect my own opinions and I take no responsibility for any inaccuracies or factual errors.
William Stephen “Billy” Wright (7 July 1960 – 27 December 1997) was a prominent Ulster loyalist during the ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. He joined the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 1975 and became commander of its Mid-Ulster Brigade in the early 1990s, having taken over from Robin “the Jackal” Jackson. According to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Wright was involved in the sectarian killings of up to 20 Catholics, although he was never convicted for any. It has been alleged that Wright, like his predecessor, was an agent of the British security forces.
INLA execute LVF leader – Billy Wright – 1997
Wright attracted considerable media attention at the Drumcree standoff, where he supported the Orange Order‘s desire to march its traditional route through the Catholic/Irish nationalist area of Portadown. In 1994, the UVF and other paramilitary groups called ceasefires. However, in July 1996, Wright’s unit broke the ceasefire and carried out a number of attacks, including a sectarian killing. For this, Wright and his Portadown unit of the Mid-Ulster Brigade were stood down by the UVF leadership. He was expelled from the UVF and threatened with execution if he did not leave Northern Ireland. Wright ignored the threats and, along with many of his followers, defiantly formed the breakaway Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF). In March 1997 he was sent to the Maze Prison for having threatened the life of a woman. While imprisoned, Wright continued to direct the LVF’s activities. In December that year, he was assassinated inside the prison by Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) prisoners. The LVF carried out a wave of sectarian attacks in retaliation.
Billy Wright Funeral
Owing to his uncompromising stance as an upholder of Ulster loyalism and opposition to the Northern Ireland peace process, Wright is regarded as a cult hero, icon, and martyr figure by hardline loyalists. His image adorned murals in loyalist housing estates and many of his devotees have tattoos bearing his likeness.
William Stephen “Billy” Wright, named after his grandfather, was born in Wolverhampton, England on 7 July 1960 to David Wright and Sarah McKinley, Ulster Protestants from Portadown, Northern Ireland. He was the only son of five children. Before Wright’s birth, his parents had moved to England when they fell out with many of their neighbours after his grandfather had challenged tradition by running as an Independent Unionist candidate and defeated the local Official Unionist MP. The Wright family had a long tradition in Northern Ireland politics; Billy’s great-grandfather Robert Wright had once served as a Royal Commissioner. His father obtained employment in the West Midlands industrial city of Wolverhampton.
L.V.F REVENGE FOR BILLY WRIGHTS DEATH.
In 1964 the family returned to Northern Ireland and Wright soon came under the influence of his maternal uncle Cecil McKinley, a member of the Orange Order. About three years later, Wright’s parents separated and his mother decided to leave her children behind when she transferred once more to England. None of the Wright siblings would ever see their mother again. Wright and his four sisters (Elizabeth, Jackie, Angela and Connie) were placed in foster care by the welfare authorities. He was raised separately from his sisters in a children’s home in Mountnorris, South Armagh (a predominantly Irish nationalist area). Wright was brought up in the Presbyterian religion and attended church twice on Sundays. The young Wright mixed with Catholics and played Gaelic football, indicating an amicable relationship with the local Catholic, nationalist population. Nor were his family extreme Ulster loyalists. Wright’s father, while campaigning for an inquest into his son’s death, would later describe loyalist killings as “abhorrent”. Two of Wright’s sisters married Catholic men, one having come from County Tipperary and whom Wright liked. Wright’s sister Angela maintained that he personally got on well with Catholics, and that he was only anti-Irish republican and anti-IRA. For a while David Wright cohabitated with Kathleen McVeigh, a Catholic from Garvagh.
Whilst attending Markethill High School, Wright took a part-time job as a farm labourer where he came into contact with a number of staunchly unionist and loyalist farmers who served with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Reserve or the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). The conflict known as the Troubles had been raging across Northern Ireland for about five years by this stage, and many young men such as Wright would be swept up in the maelstrom of violence as the Provisional IRA ramped up its bombing campaign and sectarian killings of Catholics continued to escalate. During this time Wright’s opinions moved towards loyalism and soon he got into trouble for writing the initials “UVF” on a local Catholic primary school wall. When he refused to clean off the vandalism, Wright was transferred from the area and sent to live with an aunt in Portadown.
Early years in the Ulster Volunteer Force
In the more strongly loyalist environment of Portadown, nicknamed the “Orange Citadel”, Wright was, along with other working-class Protestant teenagers in the area, targeted by the loyalist paramilitary organisation, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) as a potential recruit. On 31 July 1975, coincidentally the night following the Miami Showband killings, Wright was sworn in as a member of the Young Citizen Volunteers (YCV), the UVF’s youth wing. The ceremony was conducted by swearing on the Bible placed on a table beneath the Ulster banner. He was then trained in the use of weapons and explosives. According to author and journalist Martin Dillon, Wright had been inspired by the violent deaths of UVF men Harris Boyle and Wesley Somerville, both of whom were blown up after planting a bomb on board The Miami Showband‘s minibus. The popular Irish cabaret band had been returning from a performance in Banbridge in the early hours of 31 July 1975 when they were ambushed at Buskhill, County Down by armed men from the UVF’s Mid-Ulster Brigade at a bogus military checkpoint. Along with Boyle and Somerville, three band members had died in the attack when the UVF gunmen had opened fire on the group following the premature explosion. Boyle and Somerville had allegedly served as role models for Wright. Boyle was from Portadown. However, in his 2003 work The Trigger Men, Dillon broke from this version of events and instead concluded that Wright had actually been sworn into the YCV in 1974 when he was 14 years of age. Wright’s sister Angela told Dillon that her brother’s decision to join the UVF had in fact had nothing to do with the Miami Showband killings and Dillon then concluded that Wright had encouraged this version of events as he felt linking his own UVF membership to the activities of his heroes Boyle and Somerville added an origin myth to his own life as a loyalist killer.
Shortly after Wright joined the organisation, he was caught in possession of illegal weapons and sentenced to five years in a wing of HMP Maze (Maze Prison) reserved for paramilitary youth offenders. Before his imprisonment Wright was taken to Castlereagh Holding Centre, a police interrogation centre with a notorious reputation for the brutality employed during grilling. According to Wright’s sister Angela, he would later claim that he had been subjected to a number of indignities by the interrogating officers, including having a pencil shoved into his rectum. During his spell in prison Wright briefly joined the blanket protest, although he stepped down following an order from the UVF’s Brigade Staff (Belfast leadership), who feared that prisoner participation in the protest was being interpreted as a show of solidarity with the Provisional IRA.
Wright would later claim that his decision to join the YCV had been influenced by the Kingsmill massacre of January 1976, when ten local Protestant civilians were killed by republicans. Wright’s cousin Jim Wright, future father-in-law Billy Corrigan, and brother-in-law Leslie Corrigan, were also killed by republicans in this period. Wright later said of the Kingsmill massacre, “I was 15 when those workmen were pulled out of that bus and shot dead. I was a Protestant and I realised that they had been killed simply because they were Protestants. I left Mountnorris, came back to Portadown and immediately joined the youth wing of the UVF. I felt it was my duty to help my people and that is what I have been doing ever since.” However, the massacre actually occurred several months after Wright was first sworn in.
Locals say he was also “indoctrinated” by local loyalist paramilitaries;, however he had personally come to the conclusion that the UVF was the only organisation that had the “moral right” to defend the Protestant people. Wright was again arrested as a result of his UVF activities and in 1977 was sentenced to six years in prison for arms offences and hijacking a van. He served 42 months for these crimes at the Crumlin Road and Maze Prisons. Inside the Maze he became the wing commander of H Block 2.
Born again Christian
Wright was released from the Maze Prison in 1980. Whilst inside he had nursed a deep resentment against the British state for having imprisoned him for being a loyalist. He was met in the car park by his aunt and girlfriend. In a final act of defiance against the authorities, Wright raised his face up towards a British Army observation tower on the Maze’s perimeter fence and shouted “Up the UVF”. Following his release he went to Scotland where he lived for a brief period. He had been there only six weeks when he was taken in for questioning by the Anti-Terrorist Squad based at New Scotland Yard. Although he was not charged with any offences, Wright was nonetheless handed an exclusion order banning him from Great Britain. He soon returned to Portadown and initially tried to avoid paramilitarism. He obtained a job as an insurance salesman and married his girlfriend Thelma Corrigan, by whom he had two daughters, Sara and Ashleen. He took in his sister Angela’s son to be raised alongside his own children when she went to live in the United States. He was regarded as a good father. In 1983 he became a born again Christian and began working as a gospel preacher in County Armagh. He had studied Christianity whilst in prison to pass the time.
As a consequence of his religious conversion, Wright eschewed the highlife favoured by many of his loyalist contemporaries such as Johnny Adair and Stephen McKeag, abstaining from alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs. He read a lot, including Irish history and theology. In particular he studied the history of Protestantism in Europe. Wright’s religious faith had contradictory influences on his life. On the one hand, he argued that his faith drove him to defend the “Protestant people of Ulster”, while at the same time, he conceded that the cold-blooded murder of non-combatant civilians would ensure his damnation. He spoke of this dilemma during an interview with Martin Dillon: :94
“You can’t glorify God and seek to glorify Ulster because the challenges which are needed are paramilitary. That’s a contradiction to the life God would want you to lead. If you were to get yourself involved in paramilitary activity in its present form, or the form in which it manifested itself during the Troubles, then I don’t think you could walk with God… …There’s always the hope that in some way, someday – and there are precedents within scripture – your hope would be that God would draw you back to him. All those who have the knowledge of Christ would seek to walk with him again. People would say, ‘Billy Wright, that’s impossible,’ but nothing’s impossible if you have faith in God. I would hope that he would allow me to come back. I’m not walking with God…. Without getting into doctrine, without getting too deep, it is possible to have walked with God and to fall away and still belong to God”.
When asked by Dillon whether or not the conflict was a religious war, he replied: “I certainly believe religion is part of the equation. I don’t think you can leave religion out of it”.
Angela Wright later claimed that her brother had foreseen the September 11 attacks when he told her that as she was living in New York she was abiding in a “city of sin”; he then went on to predict that the World Trade Center towers would be destroyed from the air.
Mid-Ulster UVF commander
Wright was re-arrested, along with a number of UVF operatives in the area on evidence provided by Clifford McKeown, a “supergrass” within the movement. Wright was charged with murder, attempted murder, and the possession of explosives. The cases, however ended without any major convictions after McKeown changed his mind and ceased giving evidence.
In the late 1980s, after a five-year absence from the organisation, Wright resumed his UVF activities. This was in consequence of the November 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement which angered unionists because it gave the Irish Government an advisory role in Northern Ireland’s government. There were constant raids by the RUC and British Army on his home in Portadown’s Corcrain estate. Although he was arrested repeatedly on suspicion of murder and conspiracy, he never faced any charges.
Wright rapidly ascended to a position of prominence within the UVF ranks, eventually assuming leadership of the local Portadown unit. He became commander of the UVF’s Mid-Ulster Brigade in the early 1990s, having taken over from his mentor Robin “the Jackal” Jackson, who had been the leader since July 1975 and one of Wright’s instructors in the use of weaponry. Jackson was implicated in the 1974 Dublin car bombings, the Miami Showband killings, and a series of sectarian attacks. Founded in 1972 by its first commander Billy Hanna, the Mid-Ulster Brigade operated mainly around the Portadown and Lurgan areas. It was a self-contained, semi-autonomous unit which maintained a considerable distance from the Brigade Staff in Belfast. Holding the rank of brigadier, Wright directed up to 20 sectarian killings, according to the Northern Ireland security forces, although he was never convicted in connection with any of them.
While most of Wright’s unit’s victims were Catholic civilians, some were republican paramilitaries. On 3 March 1991, the Mid-Ulster UVF shot and killed three Provisional IRA men, along with a middle-aged civilian, in an ambush outside Boyle’s Bar in Cappagh, County Tyrone. Wright was widely blamed by nationalists and much of the press for having led this shooting attack. According to Paul Larkin in his book A Very British Jihad: collusion, conspiracy and cover-up in Northern Ireland, UVF members who had been present at Cappagh gave details of the operation, claiming that they were forced to drag Wright into the car as he had allegedly become so frenzied once he had started shooting that he didn’t want to stop. British journalist Peter Taylor, however, stated in his book Loyalists that he had been told by reliable UVF sources that Wright was not involved. The RUC arrested Wright after the shootings. During the interrogation he provided the RUC with an alibi which had placed him in Dungannon when the Cappagh attack occurred, and the RUC confirmed this. Wright himself considered Cappagh to have been a successful UVF operation. The Guardian newspaper quoted him as saying, “I would look back and say that Cappagh was probably our best”.
Because of the ruthlessness and efficiency of the attacks carried out by his unit, Wright struck fear into the nationalist and republican communities across Northern Ireland. The Cappagh killings in particular shattered the morale of the Provisional IRA East Tyrone Brigade as they had been boldly[need quotation to verify] perpetrated by the Mid-Ulster UVF in a village which was a seemingly impenetrable IRA stronghold. Wright took personal credit for this, boasting that he and his Mid-Ulster unit had “put the East Tyrone Brigade of the IRA on the run” and “decimated” them. As a result he became a target for assassination by the IRA and also the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA)’s leader Dominic McGlinchey. The IRA tried unsuccessfully to kill Wright on five different occasions; on 23 October 1992 they planted a bomb under his car, but he detected it after a report that a man had been seen crouching suspiciously beside the vehicle in West Street, Portadown.
In addition to being one of its leading military figures, Wright was initially caught up in the euphoria of the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) ceasefire, describing 13 October 1994 (the date of the announcement by Gusty Spence) as “the happiest day of my life”. However he was also a political militant within the UVF, and soon he publicly disagreed with their leadership’s calling of the ceasefire, being sceptical of the IRA’s motives for supporting the Northern Ireland peace process.
Journalist Susan McKay, writing in The Guardian, was one of the first to report that Wright at this time ran a lucrative protection racket and was one of the most significant drug dealers in the Portadown area, primarily in ecstasy.
Wright’s unit called themselves the “Brat pack”. The nickname “King Rat” was first given to Wright by the Mid-Ulster UDA commander Robert John Kerr as a form of pub bantering. According to journalist and author Paul Larkin, Kerr sat inside a pub and jokingly bestowed a nickname on each patron as they entered. When Wright walked through the door, Kerr gave him the soubriquet of “King Rat”. Sunday World journalist Martin O’Hagan picked up on it and satirically named them the “rat pack”; he also used the name “King Rat” to identify Wright. Much to Wright’s annoyance, the name became popular with the media. In response, Wright had the newspaper’s offices bombed and issued a death threat to O’Hagan and anyone who worked for the paper.
In an interview with Martin Dillon, he blamed the police raids, republican death threats and the “King Rat” nickname as factors which eventually caused the break-up of his marriage. He nevertheless maintained cordial relations with his ex-wife, Thelma, whom he described as a “good Christian”.
The Drumcree conflict, stemming from an Orange Order protest at Drumcree Church after their parade had been banned from marching through the predominately nationalist Catholic Garvaghy area of Portadown, returned to the headlines in 1995 with trouble expected in Wright’s Portadown stronghold. Just before the July marching season Irish government representative Fergus Finlay held a meeting with Wright in which the latter pledged his loyalty to the peace process and David Ervine in particular, although Wright also warned Finlay that loyalist views had to be respected. Cracks began to show however as Wright felt that the UVF response to the trouble had been inordinately low-key whilst his taste for the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) strategy also began to wane as the party moved increasingly towards a form of socialism, an ideology repugnant to Wright. A further problem arose when Wright, who by that time was a popular loyalist figure across Northern Ireland, travelled to the Shankill Road in Belfast in late 1995 to try to overturn a ban preventing an Orange Order parade entering a neighbouring Catholic area. Wright had hoped to bring local UVF units onto the streets of the Shankill to force an overturning of the ban but the Shankill commanders refused to put their units at Wright’s disposal, having assured the British authorities that they would not in a series of secret negotiations. Wright returned to Portadown in disgust, accusing the Belfast UVF of having surrendered. Nonetheless when Wright was arrested in late 1995 for intimidation he was still on good terms with the UVF, whose magazine Combat called for his release.
In January 1996, Wright once again travelled to Belfast where he dropped a verbal bombshell by announcing that the Mid-Ulster Brigade would no longer operate under the authority of the Brigade Staff. That same year Wright was ordered to attend a meeting called by the Brigade Staff at “the Eagle”, their headquarters above a chip shop (bearing the same name) on the Shankill Road, to answer charges of alleged drug dealing and being a police informer. The latter accusation came about after the loss of a substantial amount of weapons from the Mid-Ulster Brigade and a large number of its members had been arrested. Wright refused to attend and continued to flout Brigade Staff authority.
Following the decision by RUC Chief Constable Hugh Annesley to ban the Orange parade through the Garvaghy Road area of Portadown in the summer of 1996 a campaign of road blockages and general disruption broke out across Northern Ireland as a protest organised by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The protests, which led to a reversal of the ban, saw no official UVF involvement although Wright, despite not being a member of the Orange Order, was personally involved and led a sizeable force of his men to Drumcree. Wright and the Mid-Ulster Brigade attracted considerable attention from the global media as they made a formidable show of strength and staunchly defended the Orangemen’s right to march their traditional route. The brigade manned the barricades, and brought homemade weapons to the church; among these was a mechanical digger and a petrol tanker. There was intelligence that Wright and his unit had planned to attack the Army and police who were blocking the Orangemen’s passage. Television cameras broadcast Wright directing rioters on Drumcree hill against the security forces. Wright even held a meeting with one of the central figures in the operation, UUP leader David Trimble, and he was often seen in the company of Harold Gracey, Grand Master of the Portadown District Orange Lodge.
Physically, Wright stood around six feet tall, had close-cropped blond hair and cold, pale blue eyes. Peter Taylor had been at Drumcree that July and got a close-up view of Wright. Taylor described Wright as a “charismatic leader”. Clad in neat jeans, white T-shirt and wearing a single gold earring, he displayed a muscular build. Flanked by two bodyguards, Wright’s sudden appearance at Drumcree had inspired much admiration from the young boys and girls who were present. Journalist David McKittrick in the Belfast Telegraph described Wright as having been heavily tattoed, who walked with a “characteristic strut that radiated restrained menace”; and had a “bullet head, close-cropped with small ears and deep-set, piercing eyes”. Martin Dillon, who had interviewed him in his home in Portadown, admitted that he had been pleasant and charming throughout the interview, yet throughout the encounter Dillon had “sensed a dark side to his character”. Wright was also considered to have been a “political thinker and capable strategist”.
As a result of the Belfast leadership’s inaction, Wright ordered several killings on his own initiative, according to republican sources. On 9 July 1996, at the height of the Drumcree standoff, the dead body of Catholic taxi driver, Michael McGoldrick, was found in his cab in a remote lane at Aghagallon, near Lurgan, a day after having picked up a fare in the town. He had been shot five times in the head. Both the UVF and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) released statements emphatically denying involvement in McGoldrick’s killing. According to PUP leader David Ervine, Wright had ordered the killing for the purpose of incriminating the UVF Brigade Staff by making it appear as if they had sanctioned it. To further Wright’s ploy, a handgun had been sent down to the Mid-Ulster Brigade from the Shankill UVF arms dump, but as the weapon had no forensic history the plot backfired. Several years later, Clifford McKeown, the former supergrass, was convicted of the murder of McGoldrick. McKeown, who had claimed that the killing was a birthday present for Billy Wright, was sentenced to 24 years imprisonment for his involvement in the murder.
Leader of the Loyalist Volunteer Force
Billy Wright, along with the Portadown unit of the Mid-Ulster Brigade, was stood down on 2 August 1996 by the UVF’s Brigade Staff for the unauthorised attack on McGoldrick, insubordination, and undermining the peace process. Wright was expelled from the UVF and also threatened with execution by the Combined Loyalist Military Command if he did not leave Northern Ireland.
Wright expressed the following sentiments regarding the CLMC death threat in an interview he conducted with journalist Emer Woodful in late August 1996:
My heart goes out to my family at a time like this. Well, if you think you’re right, then you’re right. Although 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. 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.
Most of the other units of the Mid-Ulster Brigade soon affirmed their loyalty to the leadership although Wright ignored an order to leave Northern Ireland by 1 September 1996, and hours before the deadline attended a Royal Black Preceptory march and a celebration at a club in Portadown’s Corcrain estate, receiving a hero’s welcome at both events. On 4 September, at least 5,000 loyalists attended a rally in Portadown in support of Wright. The rally was addressed by Reverend William McCrea (a DUP Member of Parliament) and Harold Gracey (head of the Portadown Orange Lodge). McCrea made a speech critical of David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson for what he felt was their involvement in the death threats. McCrea’s sharing of the stage with a militant such as Wright caused uproar, although he argued that he was merely supporting Wright’s entitlement to freedom of speech. Ignoring the threat, Wright, in a public show of defiance, formed the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), taking members mainly from the officially-disbanded Portadown unit of the UVF Mid-Ulster Brigade. According to writers John Robert Gold and George Revill, Wright’s “mythical stature” amongst loyalists “provided him with the status necessary to form the LVF” in the traditional UVF stronghold of Portadown. Appearing at a Drumcree protest rally, Wright made the following statement: “I will not be leaving Ulster, I will not change my mind about what I believe is happening in Ulster. But all I would like to say is that it has broken my heart to think that fellow loyalists would turn their guns on me, and I have to ask them, ‘For whom are you doing it?'”. Wright’s hardline stance won the support of a number of leading loyalists, including UVF colleague Jackie Mahood, Frankie Curry of the Red Hand Commandos and Alex Kerr of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). Kerr, another key figure at the Drumcree standoff, had also been ordered by the Combined Loyalist Military Command to leave Northern Ireland on pain of execution.
They were joined by other loyalists disaffected by the peace process, giving them a maximum strength estimated at around 250 activists. They operated outside the Combined Loyalist Military Command and ignored the ceasefire order of October 1994. Wright denounced the UVF leadership as “communists”, for the left wing inclinations of some of their public statements about reconciliation with the nationalist community. Wright was strongly anti-communist and his belief in this was increased by a series of meetings he held with representatives of far right Christian groups from the southern states of the US. From these meetings, organised by Pastor Kenny McClinton, Wright was introduced to conspiracy theories about the role of communists in bringing down Christian morality, ideas that appealed to him. In a somewhat similar vein Wright also enjoyed closed relations with a Bolton-based cell of activists belonging to the neo-Nazi organisation Combat 18 and had members of this group staying in Portadown during the build-up to the Drumcree stand-off in 1997. The UVF in its turn, regarded Wright setting up a rival loyalist organisation in the Mid-Ulster area as “treason”. Members of the Belfast UVF often contemptuously referred to Wright as “Billy Wrong”, with one UVF leader suggesting that Wright was motivated by “religious zealotry and blind bigotry”. The LVF was proscribed by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam in June 1997.
Wright personally devised the LVF’s codename of “Covenant” which was used to claim its attacks. The LVF published a document stating their aims and objectives:
The use of the Ulster conflict as a crucible for far-reaching, fundamental and decisive change in the United Kingdom constitution. To restore Ulster’s right to self-determination. To end Irish nationalist aggression against Ulster in whatever form. To end all forms of Irish interference in Ulster’s internal affairs. To thwart the creation and/or implementation of any All-Ireland/All-Island political super-structure regardless of the powers vested in such institutions. To defeat the campaign of de-Britishisation and Gaelicisation of Ulster’s daily life.
Despite a series of sectarian murders and attacks on Catholic property attributed to the LVF from 1996 to early 1997 (although they were not claimed by the organisation), Wright was not imprisoned until 7 March 1997 when he was convicted of two offences: doing an act with intent to pervert the course of justice and making threats against the life of Gwen Read. This threat by Wright, which led to his arrest in January 1997, followed an altercation with Read’s family and LVF members. He was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for both offences and initially imprisoned at HMP Maghaberry. On 18 March, he received a visit from DUP politician Peter Robinson (who would be elected First Minister of Northern Ireland in 2008). During the interview Wright told Robinson that he believed an attempt on his life by republicans was imminent.
He was sent to the Maze in April 1997. He demanded and was granted an LVF section in C and D wings of H-block 6 (H6) for himself and 26 fellow inmates. INLA prisoners were housed in the A and B wings, and the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP, the political wing of the INLA) warned there would be trouble if the prisoners were not kept segregated. In August 1997, LVF prisoners, led by Wright, rioted over their visiting accommodation in the Maze.
Wright continued to direct LVF operations from the prison, although his deputy Mark “Swinger” Fulton served as its nominal leader. LVF membership increased during Wright’s imprisonment; by October 1997, membership in the organisation was between 150 and 200, many of them former UVF members disillusioned with the ceasefire. It was afterwards discovered that he had kept an irregular diary whilst in prison. On some of the pages he had made subtle threats to Catholic human rights solicitor Rosemary Nelson (killed in 1999 by a Red Hand Defenders car bomb) and her client, IRA prisoner Colin Duffy, charged with killing two RUC constables. The charges against him were later dropped. Wright’s appeal was scheduled to be heard in February 1998.
A tense situation existed within the Maze Prison. INLA inmates had told staff “they intend, given a chance, to take out the LVF”. The Prison Officers Association said precautions had been put in place to ensure inmates from the two groups did not come into contact with each other. Prison officers, however, had grave concerns over security measures in H Block 6, where Wright and the LVF were housed. The situation was made more volatile because, unlike the IRA, the UVF, and the UDA, neither the LVF nor the INLA were on ceasefire.
The decision to kill Wright inside the Maze was made in mid-December 1997 at an INLA Ard Chomhairle which was attended by the INLA Chief of Staff. The assassination was to be carried out in retaliation for the LVF killing of GAA member Gerry Devlin which had taken place shortly before. On 16 December a senior INLA member who had been at the Ard Chomhairle went to the Maze to pay a visit to the Officer Commanding of the INLA at H Block 6.
On the morning of Saturday 27 December 1997, just before 10.00 a.m., Wright was assassinated by INLA prisoners inside the Maze Prison. The operation was undertaken by three INLA volunteers – Christopher “Crip” McWilliams, John “Sonny” Glennon and John Kennaway – armed with two smuggled pistols, an PA63 semi-automatic and a .22 Derringer. He was shot in the forecourt outside H Block 6 as he sat in the back of a prison van (alongside another LVF prisoner, Norman Green and one prison officer acting as escort) on his way to the visitor’s complex where he had an arranged visit with his girlfriend, Eleanor Reilly. John Glennon had been pretending to paint a mural in the sterile area between A and B wings which placed him in a position to see and hear what happened in the forecourt. Upon hearing the announcement over the prison Tannoy system that Wright and Green had been called for their respective visits, Glennon gave a pre-arranged signal to his two waiting comrades. They moved into position at the A wing turnstile; Glennon ran into the canteen and he mounted a table situated beneath a window which gave him a clearer view of the block forecourt. When he saw Wright entering the van at 9.59 a.m. he gave a second pre-arranged signal, which was: “Go, go, go”.
The three INLA men rushed through the turnstile leading to A wing’s exercise yard. Peeling away a pre-cut section of wire fence, they climbed onto the roof of A wing and dropped into the forecourt where the Renault van containing Wright had just started to move forward towards the exit gates. The van was ordered to stop by the armed INLA men, however, the driver, John Park, thinking that he and the other officer were about to be taken hostage, intended to accelerate through the partially opened gates in a bid to escape. He was prevented from doing so when the gates were automatically shut. The other prison officers stationed at the forecourt gates had spotted the men on the roof, and assuming there was a prison escape in progress, activated the alarm system. The van was ten feet away from the gates when it came to a halt. Neither of the two prison officers inside the van was armed.
While an unarmed Kennaway physically restrained the driver, Glennon, armed with the Derringer, gave cover beside the van as McWilliams opened the side door on the left at the rear, and shouted the words: “Armed INLA volunteers”. With a smile on his face, he then took up a firing stance and aimed his PA63 pistol inside the van at Wright, who was sitting sideways facing the side door beside Norman Green, with Prison Officer Stephen Sterritt seated behind the driver. Wright had been in the middle of a conversation, discussing the “cost of Christmas”, with both men. After McWilliams ordered Sterritt to “fuck up and sit in his seat” and Green to get out of the way, the two men instantly dropped to the floor to protect themselves; however, Wright stood up and kicked out at his assailant who began firing at point blank range. Green pleaded with Wright to “get down”, but McWilliams climbed into the van and continued shooting at Wright, hitting him a total of seven times. Wright, despite being shot, continued to defend himself by moving forward, kicking and lashing out at McWilliams. Wright was fatally wounded by the last shot, the bullet having lacerated his aorta. He slumped against the legs of Green. After screaming “they shot Billy”, Green made an attempt to resuscitate Wright, but to no avail; he was brought to the prison hospital, where a doctor pronounced him dead at 10.53 a.m. None of the others inside the van were hurt. Immediately following the shooting attack, the three gunmen returned the way they had come and surrendered to prison guards. They handed over a statement:
Billy Wright was executed for one reason and one reason only, and that was for directing and waging his campaign of terror against the nationalist people from his prison cell in Long Kesh [Maze].
That night, LVF gunmen opened fire on a disco in a mainly nationalist area of Dungannon. Four civilians were wounded and one, a former Provisional IRA member, was killed. Police believed that the disco itself was the intended target.
Four masked and armed LVF men maintained a vigil beside Wright’s body which was displayed in an open coffin prior to his paramilitary funeral which took place in Portadown on 30 December. The LVF ordered all shops in the town to shut as a mark of respect; bus and taxi services were also suspended, and the Union Jack flew at half-mast. The media was kept at a distance. After a private service inside Wright’s Brownstown home, the funeral cortège, led by a lone bagpiper, proceeded to Seagoe Cemetery, two miles away. Thousands of mourners were in attendance as the hearse containing Wright’s coffin moved through the crowded streets, flanked by a guard of honour and preceded by women bearing floral wreaths. The Reverend John Gray of the Free Presbyterian Church officiated at the graveside service. Wright’s friend, the former UDA member Pastor Kenny McClinton, also delivered an oration in which he eulogised Wright as having been “complicated, articulate, and sophisticated”. LVF gunmen fired a volley of shots over his flag-draped coffin.
Wright’s close friend and deputy, Mark “Swinger” Fulton assumed control of the LVF leadership after Wright’s death. The LVF became more closely tied to the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) organisation that was led by Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair. The LVF committed a series of attacks on Catholic civilians, which it termed a “measured military response” in response to Billy Wright’s death. Other loyalist paramilitary groups also sought to avenge his killing. On 19 January 1998 the UDA’s South Belfast Brigade shot dead Catholic taxi driver Larry Brennan outside his company offices in the Lower Ormeau Road. Martin O’Hagan, the Sunday World journalist whom Wright especially disliked, was killed in September 2001 by the Red Hand Defenders, a cover-name used by the UDA and LVF.
On 20 October 1998, Christopher McWilliams, John Glennon, and John Kennaway were convicted of murdering Billy Wright, possession of a firearm and ammunition with intent to endanger life. The three men had pleaded not guilty. Although they were sentenced to life imprisonment, they only served two years of their sentence due to the early release provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.
Inquiry and allegations
The nature of Wright’s killing, within a high security prison, has led to speculation that the authorities colluded with the INLA to have him killed as he was a danger to the emerging peace process. Four days before his death, Wright himself believed that he would shortly be killed within the Maze Prison by agents of the British and Irish governments in collusion with loyalist informers and the INLA. The INLA strongly denied these rumours, and published a detailed account of the assassination in the March/April 1999 issue of The Starry Plough newspaper. Wright’s father, David had campaigned for a public inquiry into his son’s murder and had appealed for help to the Northern Ireland, British and Irish authorities for help in the matter. The murder was investigated by the Cory Collusion Inquiry and it was recommended that the UK Government launch an inquiry into the circumstances of Wright’s death. The Cory Inquiry concluded that “whatever criticism might properly be made regarding the reprehensible life and crimes of Billy Wright, it is apparent that he met his death bravely”, and described his killing as “brutal and cowardly”.
June 2005 saw the Billy Wright inquiry open, chaired by Lord MacLean. Also sitting on the inquiry were academic professor Andrew Coyle from the University of London and the former Bishop of Hereford, the Reverend John Oliver. On 14 September 2010, the findings of the panel were released publicly at Stormont House in Belfast and found that there was no evidence of collusion between the authorities and the INLA. The inquiry, which had cost £30 million, did find a number of failings within the security of the prison. There was the main question of how the weapons were successfully smuggled inside the prison to the killers. There was also the issue regarding the decision to house the INLA and LVF in H Block 6, when it was known that they were deadly rivals, neither of which was on ceasefire, and the INLA had vowed to kill Wright given the opportunity. McWilliams and Kennaway had been transferred to the Maze from Maghaberry the previous May. One month before their transfer, when Wright had still been at Maghaberry, they had organised an unsuccessful hostage-taking incident at the prison. This was meant to end in the assassination of Wright; he was subsequently moved to the Maze. Other questions were raised after the discovery that on the morning of the killing, Prison Officer Raymond Hill was stood down from his post in the watchtower overlooking A and B wings of H-Block 6 where the INLA prisoners were housed. The CCTV camera placed in the area was also found to have been nonfunctioning for several days prior to the shooting. The visitors lists for 27 December 1997 had been circulated in both the LVF and INLA wings the day before thereby giving Wright’s assassins time to prepare for the killing as the list clearly stated that Wright was scheduled to receive a visit on 27 December. The LVF prison van had been parked outside the INLA wing that morning instead of following the normal procedure which was to park outside the LVF wing. And the gates leading from the forecourt were automatically locked as soon as the killers were spotted on the roof. This had prevented the van from driving off and thus effectively trapped Wright in the rear.
In an interview with The Guardian before his own death, one of the killers, John Kennaway said the security inside the Maze was “a joke”. He claimed the weapons had been smuggled to McWilliams and Glennon inside nappies. He added that as soon as the “screws” [prison officers] had seen the INLA men on A wing’s roof, they assumed the men were staging an escape and sounded the alarm system. The gates were automatically locked-down therefore preventing the van from leaving. Kennaway suggested that had the prison officers not seen them and quickly sounded the alarm, the van could have driven away in time and Wright might have escaped with his life.
Before he was gunned down by the Red Hand Defenders in 2001, journalist Martin O’Hagan revealed to fellow journalist Paul Larkin that a high-ranking RUC officer had told him that Wright had received operational assistance from RUC Special Branch along with the code name “Bertie”. Years earlier, the UVF had conducted its own internal investigation into allegations that Wright was a police informer. UVF sources later spoke to journalists suggesting that Wright had worked for RUC Special Branch, who in turn provided him with alibis, protection, as well as information on suspected republicans. According to an IRA Intelligence officer, Wright had been specifically selected and trained by the Northern Ireland security forces to take over the role as key player in Mid-Ulster from former brigadier and alleged Special Branch agent Robin Jackson. Larkin had made a film in 1996 for BBC’s Spotlight current affairs programme about the activities of Wright and his unit entitled Rat Pack. It was broadcast on 8 October of that year.
Shortly before the findings of the inquiry into Wright’s death were released in September 2010, Ulster Television News broadcast a report regarding the question of collusion. South Belfast UDA brigadier Jackie McDonald explained to Ulster Television’s Live Tonight the UVF’s mindset at the time Wright was threatened with execution by the CLMC in 1996, “It was obvious he [Wright] was doing his own thing and going his own way. I think he had become such an embarrassment to the UVF that they had to send word to him to get out of the country – that’s when the LVF was formed, that’s when the breakaway group appeared.” When asked by the interviewer whether or not the CLMC had actually been prepared to carry out the death threat against Wright McDonald replied, “You have to be prepared to kill people if you tell them to do something and they don’t do it – something of that magnitude. If you say they had to go and they don’t go – the defiance alone, it doesn’t leave many alternatives”. McDonald expressed his personal belief that there had probably been no state collusion in Wright’s death. Equally dismissive of the allegations of collusion, Willie Gallagher of the Republican Socialist Movement offered the suggestion that had the INLA not killed Wright, he would have been released from prison shortly afterwards. Once free, Wright would have continued to conduct and orchestrate his murder campaign against nationalists.
On 30 September 2011, Billy’s father David Wright died in Portadown at the age of 78. After his funeral service at the Killicomain Baptist Church, he was buried, like Billy, in Seagoe Cemetery. Up until his death, he had continued to profess his belief that there had been state collusion in his son’s killing. He denounced the findings of the inquiry released in 2010 as a “total whitewash and a failure to get at the truth”.
Owing to his uncompromising stance as an upholder of Ulster loyalism and opposition to the peace process, Wright has, since his death, become the most revered loyalist icon and cult figure in the history of the Troubles. His image adorns countless murals in housing estates in Portadown and elsewhere throughout Northern Ireland. However one of the most well-known of these, that on a wall near Portadown F.C.‘s Shamrock Park home ground, was removed in 2006 with a mural of George Best painted in its stead. His picture appears on tee shirts, fridge magnets, key rings, and plates. He is regarded as a martyr and hero by hardline loyalists; many of whom have tattoos bearing his likeness. It is considered to be a status symbol in Portadown for loyalist men and women to display a Billy Wright tattoo on one’s arm, leg, or back. Some of his more ardent devotees even have them on the private parts of their anatomy. His successor Mark “Swinger” Fulton had one tattoed over his heart. Most of these tattoos were created by a Bolton-based member of Combat 18, who tattooed many LVF supporters with Wright’s image at houses in Portadown’s loyalists estates whilst visiting for the Twelfth.
Immediately after his death, his grave became a shrine. One teenaged girl in North Belfast set up a shrine to Wright in her bedroom complete with his photographs. She explained to a journalist, “I’m not interested in pop stars. Billy was a real Loyalist hero and I like to go to sleep at night looking at him”. Gunmen at a paramilitary display in Portadown in 2000 told journalists: “He [Wright] did what he had to do to ensure that our faith and culture were kept intact.” Wright was also taken up as an inspiration by Johnny Adair and the UDA West Belfast Brigade. In the immediate aftermath of Wright’s killing Adair told his main gunmen Stephen McKeag and Gary Smyth that they had a free hand to “avenge” Wright’s death, with McKeag almost immediately launching a machine gun attack on a bar in a mainly Catholic area despite the UDA being officially on ceasefire. The West Belfast Brigade would later reference Wright as a true loyalist who had been a victim of the UVF in a leaflet circulated to foment a feud between the UDA and the UVF. Despite this the two men had had a fractured relationship during Wright’s life and according to Adair’s sometime girlfriend Jackie “Legs” Robinson, Adair had told her that Wright was a “bastard” when the UVF leader attended a party at Robinson’s house. Robinson wrote the incident off as jealousy on Adair’s part as Wright was already well established as a leading figure in loyalism by that stage whilst Adair was still making his name.
The Belfast Telegraph newspaper summed up Billy Wright as having been “one of the most fear-inspiring loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland since the Shankill Butchers in the 1970s”. Peter Taylor offered an alternative insight into the reputation of Billy Wright by suggesting that popular myth had laid many killings and atrocities at Wright’s door when there was actually little evidence to back them up
– Disclaimer –
The views and opinions expressed in these pages/documentaries are soley intended to educate and provide background information to those interested in the Troubles of Northern Ireland. They in no way reflect my own opinions and I take no responsibility for any inaccuracies or factual errors.