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Remembering Billy Wright

Mark Devenport | 12:19 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

As we await the outcome of the Billy Wright inquiry, my mind went back to a day in May 1996 which I spent with the Portadown loyalist. The IRA ceasefire had broken down three months previously with the Canary Wharf bombing and BBC Radio 4's "World Tonight" had asked me to compile a report on the fragile state of the loyalist ceasefire. The LVF had yet to be born, but a group calling itself the "Mid Ulster UVF" had admitted involvement in a bomb alert at Dublin airport.

During the interview, Billy Wright never admitted to being part of any splinter group and, on the face of it, he still sounded supportive of David Ervine's approach. However he made a thinly veiled threat to respond to any IRA violence in kind telling me "if it's acceptable for the Dublin government to shore up a movement that's killing British citizens I would imagine that among the ground support of the UVF it would be acceptable to see members of the republican community lose their lives in a similar fashion".

Billy Wright peppered his conversation with overtly religious phrases, wishing me "God bless you, Mark", and when he spoke about politics his voice had an almost evangelical zeal and clarity. Yet I knew full well the intelligence assessments identifying Wright as the multiple killer known as "King Rat" and I had recently talked to a convicted drug dealer who had told me protection had been provided for him by Wright's men.

A few days after the broadcast I got a letter from 27 people who identified themselves as relatives who had "lost loved ones at the hands of Mr Wright and his cohorts". They acknowledged that journalists had a job to do but asked politely if the BBC "could see your way to keep Mr Wright off the airwaves for the time being at any rate".

However events swiftly took their own course. The LVF murdered Michael McGoldrick in July. Billy Wright's split with his UVF colleagues came further into the open when they threatened him to leave Northern Ireland or face execution. That brought the national media to his door. Then followed his defiant rally in Portadown, attended by Willie McCrea, his arrest for threatening a woman, his imprisonment in the Maze, then his murder on 27th December 1997.

Billy Wright's father has legitimate questions about the many failings which allowed the INLA to murder his son inside the Maze jail. But almost whatever this inquiry concludes, there is unlikely to be much sympathy for a victim believed to have so much blood on his hands. The inquiry stemmed from the Weston Park talks of 2001. Nationalists raised concerns about collusion in the murders of Pat Finucane, Rosemary Nelson and Robert Hamill. Unionists responded by highlighting the murders of Lord Justice Gibson and his wife Lady Cecily, two RUC officers Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan and the case of Billy Wright.

The Nelson and Hamill inquiries are due to report in the coming months. The Pat Finucane case is still mired in disagreement between the government and the Finucane family who reject the terms under which they have been offered a probe. The Canadian Judge Peter Cory did not recommend an inquiry into the case of Lord Justice Gibson, whilst it's thought there may be public hearings of the tribunal looking at the Buchanan and Breen murders later this year.

With the benefit of hindsight one may wonder why the Claudy bombing did not feature in the list submitted to Judge Cory for consideration? However the revelations about the talks between William Whitelaw and Cardinal Conway concerning the Claudy bomb suspect Father James Chesney were not made public until December 2002, the year after the Weston Park talks.


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