Death threat puts Ulster's King Rat behind bars

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The Independent Online
Billy Wright, who as "King Rat" has been the most public face of militant loyalist extremism in Northern Ireland, was yesterday jailed for eight years for threatening to kill a woman.

The judge described the 36-year-old as a sinister man whose threats, in August 1995, had "petrified" the woman. She was a key witness in the case, and has now left Northern Ireland. She lives under police protection at a secret address in England.

Wright's high public profile and fearsome reputation made him into both an icon of loyalist paramilitarism and a target for numerous IRA attempts on his life. He also had to contend with close RUC attentions which led him to lodge frequent complaints about "police harassment".

Last year he fell foul of his own organisation, the illegal Ulster Volunteer Force, which publicly announced that he would be killed if he did not leave Northern Ireland. Such a range of enemies led a senior police officer to say last summer: "It's really a question of who gets to him first - the IRA, the UVF or us."

The sentence shows that the race was won by the authorities. Passing judgment, Lord Justice McCollum described him as an inscrutable witness whose evidence was not capable of belief, while the woman witness had been honest, reliable and accurate.

Outside court, one of Wright's friends said: "It's an absolute disgrace. The judgment was completely political."

Wright featured prominently in last year's Orange march standoff at Drumcree, not far from his home, when it was said he had planned an assault on police lines using an armoured bulldozer. The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, was criticised for meeting him during the confrontation, but responded by saying he had been working to avert violence.

His brushes with the law go back at least until 1981, when he was charged with the murder of a Catholic. That case collapsed, but he later spent several years in jail for possession of a gun. Unusually for a loyalist paramilitary, he went through a religious phase during which he became a lay preacher.

David McKittrick, Belfast