Even in the fractious world of Troubles Northern Ireland, Billy Wright was a singularly divisive character.
As the leader of the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force in Portadown, he was responsible for the killings of more than 20 Catholics in the 1980s. In 1996, he rejected the UVF ceasefire, creating the Loyalist Volunteer Force and orchestrating a campaign of sectarian violence from his Mid-Ulster stronghold.
Wright was living under death threats from both sides of the paramilitary divide when, in the Maze prison in December 1997, he was shot dead by three members of the republican Irish National Liberation Army.
The controversy surrounding the man dubbed “King Rat” did not dissipate with his death. Allegations of collusion swirled around the murder: Where could paramilitary prisoners in the Maze, supposedly one of Europe’s safest prisons, get access to handguns?
How were the INLA killers, John Kenneway, Christopher “Crip” McWilliams and John Glennon, able to ambush the van carrying Wright from one section of the prison to another?
The 704-page report into Wright’s killing categorically rejects all accusations of state collusion. Summarising the report, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson said “serious failings” by the prison authorities did “facilitate” the shooting, but these were the result of “negligence” and were neither intentional nor premeditated.
The report suggests that the security regime in the Maze had become lax and predictable: a point freely acknowledged in 2007 by Kenneway, who described security as “a joke”.
Elsewhere, the Royal Ulster Constabulary is criticised for failing to pass on intelligence from agents within the INLA that the group had discussed killing the loyalist leader in the months leading up to December 1997.
Wright’s father, David, vociferous in his calls for a full public inquiry, has described the report as “firm and final” proof of collusion by the state, but in reality its findings stop short of such a definitive conclusion.
The report calls for radical reform of the prison service, but most paramilitary groups have now disbanded.
Meanwhile, the state collusion has not been proven. Yet Lord MacLean and the report’s authors admit they don’t know how the guns that killed Wright got into the Maze. This would suggest there are still questions to be answered, but public attention is more likely to fixate on the inquiry’s cost – estimated at £30 million – than the controversy that still surrounds the death of one of Northern Ireland’s most feared sectarian killers.
This piece first appeared in the Scotsman on September 15