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A loyalist killer known as King Rat has entered Northern Ireland's grim folklore. David McKittrick reports

AS SOON as it was broadcast on Monday that an elderly Catholic couple had been killed in their Co Tyrone cottage, the word went round: King Rat did it; King Rat has struck again; no one is safe; who's next?

It remains to be seen what involvement the Portadown Ulster Volunteer Force leader who is known as King Rat had in the murders of Charlie and Teresa Fox. He may have pulled the trigger; he may have helped plan the attack; or he may have had no part in the affair.

In the tense, anxious atmosphere of that part of Northern Ireland, it hardly matters. King Rat is firmly fixed in the grim folklore of Tyrone and Armagh as the relentless, merciless embodiment of the loyalist death squads. He is destined to go down in history as one of the foremost, and certainly one of the most feared, Protestant assassins.

His identity is one of Northern Ireland's many open secrets: his name, as they say, is known to the dogs in the streets. The town of Portadown, where he lives, is a small, bitter place where both sets of extremists know each other well. Sometimes the loyalists paint the names of their intended victims on the walls of the shabby housing estates.

King Rat has accepted his celebrity, or notoriety. He has given several interviews to newspapers and even television, in which he spoke frankly about the right of Protestants to take the law into their own hands. He comes across as not particularly bright, and impervious to argument.

The area has seen more than a score of loyalist killings since 1988. A large number of men have been involved, but almost all have become linked in the public mind with King Rat. One of the features of the attacks has been a readiness to shoot women: apart from Mrs Fox, two teenage Catholic girls were gunned down in an attack on a mobile shop, and a bus carrying Catholic women and children was machine-gunned.

Some of the attacks have been indiscriminate, though others have killed people with republican connections. This fact has led to allegations that King Rat and his men have received assistance from the security forces.

Loyalist paramilitary activities have a very long pedigree in this area. Since at least the 18th century it has had a tradition of Protestants banding together in armed groups, with or without official sanction. In the mid-1970s Protestant gunmen and bombers killed so many people that the area became known as 'the murder triangle'.

That last bout of violence produced an earlier icon of violence, a man known as the Jackal. The local tabloid press regularly features both King Rat and this older man, who is said to be still active. Acts of IRA violence are often followed by stories that either King Rat or the Jackal is furious and bent on vengeance.

Republicans in Armagh and Tyrone speak frequently about King Rat and his associates, and they and everyone else know where they live. Several other loyalist paramilitary figures who have become public personalities have met their deaths at the hands of republicans over the years and King Rat, in a Dublin newspaper interview, acknowledged that he is a marked man. '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 now. If I was shot dead in the morning, I would laugh in my grave.'

The relatives of victims of King Rat and other loyalist killers find it difficult to understand why he is at large and giving interviews. He and his associates are, in fact, regularly questioned by the RUC but, almost always, released for lack of evidence. The same happens with suspected republican terrorists.

Figures like King Rat often remain active for a long time, but most in the end either wind up in jail or in an early grave. When their profile becomes too high, there is intense pressure on the police and the IRA to deal with them. The question may be which one will get to King Rat first.

(Photograph omitted)