Northern Ireland

Who was Billy Wright?

An inquiry is reporting on the circumstances surrounding the death of Billy Wright, the founder of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), who was murdered in the Maze prison in December 1997. So who was he?

Billy Wright
Billy Wright was shot dead in the Maze prison in 1997

Billy Wright was one of the most terrifying loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.

The man nicknamed King Rat - a term coined by journalists on the Sunday World newspaper - waged a bloody and bigoted campaign against the Catholic population in the Portadown and Lurgan area between the mid 1980s and his death in 1997.

Wright was born in 1960 in Wolverhampton.

Billy Wright's father, David has said on several occasions that he abhorred sectarian killings.

Billy Wright's parents separated when he was a child and he moved to Northern Ireland with his four sisters.

The children were put into care and Billy, separated from his sisters, was brought up in a largely nationalist area of south Armagh.

He mixed with Catholics and played Gaelic football, a sport mainly played by the Catholic community.

But the Troubles was at its height and several of his relatives were killed by republicans in the 1970s.

One of them, Jim Wright, a Salvation Army member and former RUC reservist, was blown up by the INLA in July 1979. His funeral was attended by 10,000 people.

In 1976, not long after 10 Protestant workers were murdered by the IRA in the Kingsmill Massacre, Wright joined the youth wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

But he was soon arrested and in 1977 he was jailed for six years for arms offences.

Wright served just over half his sentence and was released in 1980.

He then married Thelma Corrigan, had two daughters and settled down to work as an insurance salesman in Portadown.

He also claimed to have become a born-again Christian and spent time preaching the gospel.

Christopher McWilliams
Christopher McWilliams was one of Wright's killers

But as the Troubles continued, Wright rejoined the UVF and was arrested on several occasions but never charged.

Eventually he became the UVF's "Mid-Ulster commander" and is thought to have ordered or participated in around 20 killings, most of which were blatantly sectarian.

The IRA and the INLA tried to kill Wright at least five times but he survived and built his reputation among Portadown loyalists.

By 1991 Wright had also started dealing in drugs, which had become a very lucrative sideline.

It was around this time that Sunday World journalists Martin O'Hagan and Jim Campbell coined the term "rat pack" for the UVF's murderous mid-Ulster unit and, unable to identify Wright by name for legal reasons, they christened him "King Rat".

Wright was apparently enraged by the nickname and made numerous threats to O'Hagan and Campbell. The Sunday World's offices were also firebombed.

Years later, Mr O'Hagan, 51, was shot dead by members of Wright's gang as he walked home from a pub with his wife in September 2001.

Fell out with UVF leaders

As the peace process gathered pace Wright resisted it. He was sceptical of the IRA ceasefire.

Michael McGoldrick
Wright was expelled from the UVF following the murder of Michael McGoldrick

But Wright was becoming increasingly out of line with the UVF leadership's thinking.

He tried to stoke up sectarian hatred around the Orange Order's disputed Drumcree march along the Garvaghy Road in 1996.

On 8 July 1996, with the tension at Drumcree at its height, Wright's men murdered Catholic taxi driver Michael McGoldrick near Lurgan.

The murder was reportedly carried out as a "birthday present" for Wright.

This was the final straw and Wright was expelled from the UVF and ordered to stand down and leave Northern Ireland, along with a UDA member, Alex Kerr.

But, confident of his own powerbase, he simply set up his own militia and called it the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF).

Thousands of people attended an impromptu rally in Portadown and Wright spoke out against concessions being made to republicans.

Jailed

The LVF was banned by the government in June 1997 but it went on to murder a number of Catholics.

By then Wright was already in jail.

He was arrested in January 1997 and jailed two months later for eight years in connection with an incident on the Redmanville estate in Portadown.

After an altercation between LVF members and the family of a woman, Wright pulled up alongside her and threatened to kill her if she gave evidence against his men.

Wright was initially sent to Maghaberry prison but in April he was transferred to the Maze and was put on his own wing with a number of other LVF men.

On 27 December 1997 he was led out to a van for a visit with his girlfriend but was shot dead by three INLA men.

Thousands of people turned up for Wright's funeral in Portadown.