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The Spectacular End to Sectarian Serial Killer Billy Wright

The author is a QUB Pol Sci Honours graduate and has written extensively on imperialism, national liberation struggles and class issues.

Billy Wright in conversation with William McCrea, MP, now Lord Magherafelt.

Billy Wright in conversation with William McCrea, MP, now Lord Magherafelt.

The Billy Wright Inquiry

The 700-page report into the execution-style killing of Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) death-squad leader, Billy 'King Rat' Wright, in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh prison in December 1997, was made public on September 2010. Unsurprisingly, it categorically ruled out any state collusion in his assassination. The eagerly anticipated report was formally released after Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Patterson, announced its finding in the House of Commons on September 14th, 2011, which despite ruling out collusion was scathing of the management of the Maze prison.

The Billy Wright report, costing the British taxpayer £36 million, was established at the behest of the Wright family, who rather improbably alleged that the British government, the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the security services acted in concert to facilitate the murder of the Loyalist godfather.

A Volatile Situation on H-Block 6

The 700-page report was understandably critical of the prison regime that allowed Billy 'King Rat' Wright and his fellow LVF prisoners to share the same H-Block 6 as prisoners belonging to the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), a Marxist revolutionary Republican group responsible for high-profile operations, such as the assassination inside Westminster of prominent ultra-right-wing politician, Airey Neave. Prior to Wright's assassination in 1997, both INLA and LVF prisoners had been vocal in pointing out the volatility of the situation in H-Block 6.

Weapons used in the operation: a Hungarian FEG PA-63 pistol & 2 shot .22LR Derringer.

Weapons used in the operation: a Hungarian FEG PA-63 pistol & 2 shot .22LR Derringer.

The Rat Trap

Wright died at the hands of what was termed an INLA active service unit (ASU) while still imprisoned inside the top-security Long Kesh Prison. On the morning of the 27th of December 1997, a three-member INLA ASU armed themselves with two handguns and made their way through a pre-cut hole in the chainlink fence in one of the H-Block's exercise yards. From there the INLA trio scaled the roof of the one-story H-Block and dropped into the courtyard of the entrance to the block where Wright had just boarded a prison bus en route to the prison visiting area.

The INLA hit-team led by Christopher 'Crip' McWilliams, with fellow INLA prisoners Sonny Glennon and John Kennaway in supporting roles, forced access to the prison van, where they quickly terminated Wright—who, although incarcerated, had been directing a vicious campaign of sectarian murder. The INLA unit then returned to their wing on H6. Incredibly, the entire military-style operation reportedly took less than two minutes, from the time the INLA unit emerged from the pre-cut exercise yard fence.

The visit bus Wright was assassinated in. By the time the visit bus arrived, King Rat's fate was sealed.

The visit bus Wright was assassinated in. By the time the visit bus arrived, King Rat's fate was sealed.

Loyalist Conspiracy Theories

The main contentions of the Loyalist death-squad leader's family were that several 'irregularities' in security procedures occurred either on the day of his killing or in the lead-up to it. David Wright, the LVF leader's father, was allegedly later contacted by individual prison guards who were on duty on the day of his son's assassination. The Long Kesh prison guards alleged that key security watchtowers were left unattended—in direct contravention of established security procedures, on the supposed orders of the then–prison governor, the late Martin Mogg.

Wright's father further alleges that his son, who many commentators believe was a security services protected asset, became surplus to requirements in the era of the fledgling Northern Ireland peace process. The Wright family became convinced that his son's assassination within supposedly Europe's most secure prison was the culmination of an unlikely chain of conspiracy that began with his son's transfer to the Long Kesh prison from the nearby Maghaberry Gaol.

David Wright contends that his son's transfer to the Maze prison was at the behest of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and would have required clearance at Cabinet level. Wright Senior is critical of the decision to place Billy Wright and his fellow maverick LVF followers within the same prison H-Block as INLA inmates. It is only to be expected that David Wright, by all accounts a quiet but determined loving father, would have been easily manipulated by the conspiracy theories planted by loyalist screws for their agenda.

The aftermath of the INLA operation to assassinate Wright

The aftermath of the INLA operation to assassinate Wright

Sectarian Serial Killer

Billy 'King Rat' Wright was the leader of Northern Ireland's most prolific sectarian murder gang, which terrorized the mid-Ulster area for several decades of the conflict. Wright's ability to carry out a sectarian murder campaign, unhindered by any serious possibility of prosecution, was seen to have been clear evidence of British government collusion in state-sponsored murder.

Nationalist and even moderate Unionist politicians accepted that Billy Wright was indeed a protected species, a term for a government agent. Wright's seemingly charmed and largely unhindered campaign of sectarian murder was allowed to continue because it was a key element of Kitsonite military counter-insurgency strategy in the north of Ireland.

Originally a regional commander of the Unionist Ulster Volunteer Force, he fell out of favor with the UVF's Belfast leadership due to their engagement in the fledgling Northern Ireland Peace Process. Following his expulsion from the mainstream UVF and on foot of a blanket death threat from the same organisation, Wright formed his own ultra-right-wing, Protestant fundamentalist, paramilitary gang, the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF).

The DUP: Political Wing of Wright's LVF?

Billy Wright and the LVF were closely associated with Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and their ultra-right-wing brand of Protestant fundamentalist politics. Wright allegedly received the backing of a number of well-known DUP parliamentary figures, including gospel music crooner and arch-bigot the Reverend William McCrea, Westminster MP for South Antrim and later Lord Magherafelt in the House of Lords.

Many saw the DUP as being the de facto political wing of the LVF, amidst allegations that senior DUP politicians were responsible for laundering LVF drugs money for may years. The late investigative journalist Martin O'Hagan was murdered by the LVF, reportedly just as he was about to expose the details of financial links between the DUP and Wright's pseudo-gang.

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Wright was eventually jailed for a relatively minor charge and his Mid-Ulster Loyalist followers maintained that he had been taken out of circulation in the interests of the nascent Northern Ireland peace process. Although imprisoned within supposedly the most secure prison in Europe, it was widely accepted that he continued to direct the sectarian murder campaign of the LVF from his prison cell.

The Irish National Liberation Army

The INLA had objected strongly to the Long Kesh prison authorities placing a suspected agent and loose cannon like Billy Wright and his LVF gang within the same H-Block as the INLA, as a recipe for trouble. However, for reasons best known to themselves these warnings were ignored by the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

In the immediate aftermath of the killing of sectarian serial killer Wright, one of the INLA unit, Christopher 'Crip' McWilliams, when arrested by police on December 1997 stated:

"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."

The three members of the INLA active service unit including McWilliams and his comrades, John Kennaway and Sonny Glennon, subsequently faced counts of murder and possession of firearms. At their much-publicized trial, they offered no evidence in their defense but refused to plead guilty. After a short hearing, they were sentenced to Life imprisonment, but due to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement's political offenders release program, they served just over two years of jail time. Since their release, both Crip McWilliams and John Kennaway have died, leaving Sonny Glennon as the sole surviving member of the INLA hit team.

The Billy Wright Inquiry and the tribunal that was commissioned due to concerns raised by David Wright heard evidence from prison guards, prison governors, LVF members, MI5 intelligence officers, Special Branch detectives, and other 'interested' parties. Some of the findings on the reams of evidence that emerged during the inquiry focused on how the INLA active service unit managed to smuggle the two handguns, a Makarov-type 38 pistol and a .22LR two-shot Derringer, into the prison.

However, the Irish Republican Socialist bureau, which released a statement shortly before the Wright Inquiry findings were published, have always maintained that there was no collusion at any level and that their members simply took advantage of circumstances as they presented themselves to them. It is thought highly unlikely that the INLA would have colluded with the NIO or the Stat. Wright had been the Irish National Liberation Army's number one target for many years, both prior to his incarceration and in his Mid-Ulster killing fields. In many ways, the INLA struck a very decisive blow for the nascent peace process.

The INLA operation against Wright took place within Long Kesh prison's H-Blocks

The INLA operation against Wright took place within Long Kesh prison's H-Blocks

Crip and his 2 comrades had achieved high levels of fitness that allowed them to scale a prison fence and roof and assassinate Wright, then return by the same means, all within 2–3 minutes.

Crip and his 2 comrades had achieved high levels of fitness that allowed them to scale a prison fence and roof and assassinate Wright, then return by the same means, all within 2–3 minutes.

Billy Wrong

The findings of the 700-page report further exposed the 'unique' regime that existed within the now-closed H-Blocks. Both Republican and Loyalist prisoners were largely in control of the day to day running of the jail. Many of the main allegations of conspiracy, collusion and cover-up surrounding the murder of Billy Wright are contained in the book by Chris Anderson, entitled The Billy Boy. Anderson maintains that from the moment Wright entered the Maze prison, he was as good as dead.

One thing is certain, there were even fewer tears shed for Wright in 2010 than there were in 1997. Some commentators have alleged that it was possible that the security services knew in advance, through electronic surveillance bugs in the prison, of the plans by the INLA to kill Wright, but due to a change in tact of security policy, it was their view that it was politically expedient to let him die. Security figures within the Maze prison and MI5 spooks, who gave evidence at the Wright Inquiry, denied that there were covert listening devices concealed anywhere within the prison when it was a common belief among prisoners that such surveillance methods were routine.

Shadowy Kitsonian figures had created an uncontrollable Frankenstein monster in Billy Rat who was proving impossible to control in the impending era of the 'new dispensation' in Anglo-Irish politics. Billy Wright fatally believed his own propaganda and failed to see that he was increasingly surplus to requirements and therefore no longer had the charmed cloak of protection that had prevented previous numerous assassination attempts. Even if Wright had survived his stay in Long Prison prison, there would have been no place in the era of the so-called new dispensation for figures like Wright.

How to Read the Report

The Billy Wright Inquiry and its key findings are available online from the 14th of September, 2010.

© 2019 Liam A Ryan


Liam A Ryan (author) from Ireland on September 26, 2019:

Thank you! Glad you're enjoying my articles!

Paddy1916 on September 26, 2019:

Excellent article mo chara. Comprehensive and thoroughly engaging. I am enjoying reading through your articles after seeing a link to your piece on the Crum. Billy Wrong is right! Keep them coming mate! Brilliant stuff!

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