'King Rat' foresaw his death

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The Independent Online
Some years ago Billy Wright, after surviving a number of IRA attempts on his life, mused about his prospects: "People are writing stories about me - Catholics, nationalists, left-wingers. I know what they are trying to do.

"Personally, I'm a dead man. It would be morally wrong to back off. I have to give my life now. I am married, I have kids, but morally I have to lay down my life ... If I was shot dead in the morning, I would laugh in my grave."

By then he had already reached the stage of notoriety achieved by a series of loyalist figures, which makes them prestige targets for republicans, for the security forces, and very often for others on their own side. Hehyped that notoriety by giving a series of newspaper interviews using his nickname, "King Rat".

Wright had so many enemies that yesterday it was at first unclear whether he had been killed by republicans or by fellow loyalists. He had spent more than a year under a death threat from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). There are many extreme loyalists who will regard his passing as occasion for celebration rather than regret.

Many in authority will privately feel much the same, for he and his small but dangerous band of associates represented a significant threat to the peace process. His breakaway Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) killed three Catholic civilians this year and was plainly intent on doing all it could to return Northern Ireland to full-scale conflict.

Wright was a child of the troubles. Born in 1960, he was 15 when the IRA killed 10 Protestants not far from where he lived in south Armagh. He had already had a disturbed childhood, and was then living in a home following the breakup of his parents' marriage.

He joined the UVF and killed his first victim, a Catholic shot from a car, at the age of 21. He was charged with murder but acquitted. His militancy increased when his father-in-law, brother-in- law and an uncle were killed by the IRA.

He spent much of his life in the bitterly-divided town of Portadown, base of the UVF's Mid-Ulster brigade, which was responsible for the killings of more than 40 people, most of them Catholic civilians. He is thought to have been involved in planning or carrying out more than a dozen of these.

Over the years he was in and out of jail, but his longest stretch was only three years. He was also a religious man with a leaning towards Paisleyism. For a time he was a lay preacher.

As his reputation grew the authorities tried harder and harder to lock him up for good, while republicans tried harder and harder to kill him. Following a string of assassination attempts he turned his home into a fortress, varying his movements. Detectives regarded him as one of the cleverest loyalist paramilitaries.

His profile became even higher during the 1996 loyalist marching confrontation at Drumcree, when he was seen to play a leading role. Security sources said he had ordered the killing of a Catholic taxi-driver during the stand- off.

By that stage he had become too militant even for the UVF, which was exploring a political route. They expelled him and ordered him to leave Northern Ireland, but he formed the LVF in defiance of this threat.

In March he was jailed for eight years for threatening to kill a woman. In prison he remained highly active, organising protests and persuading prisoners to switch their allegiance to the LVF. He is thought to have played a part in this year's Drumcree clashes and to have ordered at least one of the three LVF killings.