Northern Ireland

Billy Wright murder inquiry report due

Billy Wright
Image caption Billy Wright had been openly threatening Northern Ireland's peace process

A public inquiry into the murder of loyalist paramilitary leader Billy Wright inside the Maze prison 13 years ago will be published later.

The head of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) was shot by republican prisoners in December 1997 inside one of the world's most secure jails.

His family say he was a victim of collusion between prison authorities, the security services and police.

The four-year inquiry costing almost £30m addressed those claims.

NI Secretary Owen Paterson is to announce the inquiry's conclusions at Westminster on Tuesday afternoon.

Billy Wright's family arrived at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast on Tuesday morning and were locked into a room to read the 700-page report in private.

The inquiry was prompted by the findings of retired Canadian judge Peter Cory in 2004.

He said he was satisfied that "there was sufficient evidence of collusive acts by prison authorities to warrant the holding of such an inquiry".

During the inquiry into Wright's killing, it was revealed that there was intelligence information indicating the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) planned to kill Wright if he was transferred from Maghaberry prison to the Maze.

But he was moved in April 1997 and eight months later, he was shot dead.

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Billy Wright was one of the most notorious 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.

He was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (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.

He was jailed in 1997 for threatening to kill a woman. He was initially sent to Maghaberry prison but later transferred to the Maze where he was shot dead on 27 December 1997 as he was let out to a van for a visit with his girlfriend.

The investigation into his death was established in May 2007 under the chairmanship of Lord Ranald MacLean. The retired judge was one of three who presided over the Lockerbie trial.

Under the terms of reference the panel has to decide firstly whether any act or omission by the prison authorities or other state agencies facilitated Wright's death, or whether attempts were made to do so.

Secondly, it will determine whether any of those acts or omissions were intentional or negligent.

Speaking prior to the publication of the inquiry's findings, Sinn MLA for Upper Bann, John O'Dowd said it was important that an inquiry took place.

"Sinn Fein have always said that all the families in the conflict deserve to know the truth about how their loved ones lost their lives," he said.

"As difficult as that is, even in Billy Wright's case, Billy Wright's father has the right to know how and why Billy Wright met his death."

On the morning of 27 December 1997, Wright was murdered in jail by INLA men, Christopher McWilliams, John Kennaway and another man.

Image caption Christopher McWilliams, one of the INLA gunmen who shot Billy Wright

The gunmen got through a hole cut in a fence, ran across the roof of the block and shot Wright as he sat in a van which was due to take him to a visiting area.

In the years following Wright's murder, his father David has campaigned for an investigation into allegations that the state was involved.

The inquiry heard evidence that there was intelligence information indicating Wright was under threat from the INLA.

In April 1997, an MI5 agent inside the INLA told his handler what he knew about a potential attack on Wright.

That information was shared with RUC Special Branch, though they seem not to have shared it with other parts of the police.

Sir John Wheeler was adamant at the inquiry that he was not shown this piece of intelligence.

Image caption NI Secretary Owen Paterson is due to announce the inquiry findings at Westminster

There is also some doubt about whether the RUC passed on the intelligence to the prison service.

Timeline

Counsel for the Wright family was adamant they did not.

The inquiry also heard evidence outlining flaws in the way the Maze prison was being run at the time.

Prisoners had more freedom than would have been expected in a high security prison, with searches infrequent to non-existent.

Security cameras were not working and the guards in observation towers were frequently stood down.

At the time of Wright's murder, INLA and LVF prisoners were housed in the same block of the prison despite being bitter enemies.

The inquiry also heard that outside observers including the Red Cross and the Official Prison Visitor advised of the dangers of co-locating the LVF and INLA.

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