Billy Wright (July 7, 1960 – December 27, 1997) was a Northern Irish paramilitary, a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and leader of the extremist Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF). He was assassinated by the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) group in 1997.
Billy Wright was born in Wolverhampton to an Irish Protestant family, but was raised in Mountnorris, in south Armagh (a predominantly Irish nationalist area). Wright's parents separated when he was six and he lived for a time in a children's home in Mountnorris. The young Wright mixed with Catholics and played Gaelic football indicating an amicable relationship with the local Catholic, nationalist population. Nor were his family extreme loyalists. Wright's father, while campaigning for an inquest into his son's death, would later describe loyalist killings as "abhorent".
However, Billy Wright joined the youth section of the Ulster Volunteer Force at the age of fifteen, partly in response to the Kingsmill massacre of 1976, when ten local Protestants were killed by Republicans -the climax of a cycle of sectarian killings in the area. Wright's uncle, father-in-law and brother-in-law were all also shot dead by republicans in this period. Wright later said of the Kingsmill massacre, "I was 15 when those workmen were pulled out of that bus and shot dead. I was a Protestant and I realised that they had been killed simply because they were Protestants. I left Mountnorris, came back to Portadown and immediately joined the youth wing of the UVF. I felt it was my duty to help my people and that is what I have been doing ever since."
Locals say he was also "indoctrinated" by local loyalist paramilitaries. Wright was soon arrested as a result of his UVF activities and was sentenced to six years in prison for arms offences and hijacking in 1977. He served 42 months for these crimes at the Crumlin Road and Maze prisons. When his prison term was completed, Wright went briefly to Scotland but soon returned to Portadown in Northern Ireland. He worked there as an insurance salesman, married and had two daughters. He also became a Born again Christian in this period and worked as a gospel preacher in county Armagh. Wright's religious faith had contradictory influences on his life. On the one hand, he argued that his faith drove him to defend the 'Protestant people of Ulster', while at the same time, he conceded that the way in which he had taken that fight to the enemy would ensure his damnation.
In the mid 1980s, after a five year absence from the organisation, Wright resumed his UVF activities. He was arrested repeatedly throughout the 1980s on suspicion of murder and conspiracy.
Wright became commander of the UVF brigade in the mid-Ulster area around Portadown and directed up to 20 sectarian killings, according to the Northern Ireland Security Forces, though he was never convicted of any. While most of Wright's unit's victims were Catholic civilians, some were republican paramilitaries. In 1991, the mid Ulster UVF killed three IRA men, along with an elderly by-stander, in Cappagh, county Tyrone. As a result of his unit's killings, he became a target for assassination by the IRA and also the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) leader Dominic McGlinchey. The IRA tried to kill Wright on five different occasions, at one time planting a bomb under his car, but he survived each time.
Wright's unit called themselves the "Brat pack". Sunday World journalist Martin O'Hagan satirically named them the "rat pack" and Billy Wright himself as "King Rat". Much to Wright's annoyance, the name stuck in popular consciousness. In response, Wright had the newspaper's offices bombed and issued a death threat to O'Hagan and anyone who worked for the paper. In addition to being one of its leading military figures, Wright was also a political militant within the UVF, and he publicly disagreed with their leadership's calling of a ceasefire in October 1994.
Wright was again critical of the UVF when they failed to organise attacks in support of an Orange Order parade at Drumcree, which had been banned in July, 1996. As a result of the leadership's inaction, he ordered several killings on his own initiative, including that of Catholic civilian James Morgan.
On July 9, 1996, at the height of the Drumcree stand off, the body of Catholic taxi driver, Michael McGoldrick, was found shot dead in his cab in a remote lane at Aghagallon, near Lurgan, a day after having picked up a fare in the town. He had been shot five times in the head.
Several years later, Clifford McKeown, a former loyalist Supergrass, was convicted of the murder of Michael McGoldrick. McKeown, who had claimed that the killing was a birthday present for Billy Wright, was sentenced to 24 years imprisonment for his involvement in the murder.
Wright was dismissed from the UVF for these unauthorised attacks and was threatened with execution.
However, Wright ignored the threat and in a public show of defiance, formed the Loyalist Volunteer Force(LVF), taking members mainly from his old UVF brigade. Wright appeared at the Drumcree stand off and made the following statement; " I will not be leaving Ulster, I will not change my mind about what I believe is happening in Ulster. But all I would like to say is that it has broken my heart to think that fellow loyalists would turn their guns on me, and I have to ask them for whom are you doing it."
They were joined by other loyalists disaffected by the peace process, giving them a maximum strength estimated at around 250 activists. They operated outside the Combined Loyalist Military Command and ignored the ceasefire order of October 1994. Wright denounced the UVF leadership as "communists", for the left wing inclinations of some of their public statements about reconciliation with the nationalist community. The LVF was proscribed (made illegal) by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam in June 1997.
Despite a series of sectarian murders and attacks on Catholic property attributed to the LVF through 1996-1997 (although they were not claimed), Wright was not successfully imprisoned until March 1997 when he was convicted of threatening to kill a woman and was sentenced to eight years. Initially imprisoned at HMP Maghaberry he was sent to the Maze again in April 1997. He demanded and was granted an LVF section in C and D wings of H-block 6 (H6) for himself and 26 fellow inmates. INLA prisoners were housed in the A and B wings and the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP, the political wing of the INLA) warned there would be trouble if the prisoners were not kept segregated. In May of 1997 the LVF agreed to a ceasefire - mainly in the hope of securing early release for Wright and other prisoners. In August 1997 LVF prisoners rioted over their visiting accommodation in the Maze.
A tense situation existed within the Maze prison. INLA inmates had told staff "they intend, given a chance, to take out the LVF". The Prison Officers Association said precautions had been put in place to ensure inmates from the two groups did not come into contact with each other. Prison officers, however, had grave concerns over security measures in H Block 6, where Wright and the LVF were housed. Five months later, LVF leader Wright was ambushed by an INLA team, led by Christopher 'Crip' McWilliams. He was shot three times and died on the scene.
Wright is considered a hero and martyr figure by hardline loyalists. Loyalist gunmen at a paramilitary display in Portadown in 2000 told journalists "He did what he had to do to ensure that our faith and culture were kept intact."
The LVF was reduced without its leader and became more closely tied to the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) of Johnny 'Mad Dog' Adair. The group committed a series of almost random attacks on Catholic civilians in revenge for the death of Wright. Martin O'Hagan, a journalist whom Wright especially disliked, was killed in September 2001 by the Red Hand Defenders, a cover-name.
The nature of Wright's killing, within a high security prison, has led to speculation that the authorities colluded with the INLA to have him killed as he was a danger to the emerging Peace Process. Wright's father has campaigned for a public inquiry into his son's murder and has appealed for help to the Northern Ireland, British and Irish authorities for help in the matter. The murder was investigated by the Cory Collusion Inquiry and it was recommended that the UK Government launch an inquiry into the circumstances of Wright's death.
June 2005 saw the Billy Wright inquiry open, chaired by Lord MacLean. Also sitting on the inquiry are academic professor Andrew Coyle from the University of London and the former Bishop of Hereford, the Reverend John Oliver.