'King Rat': the assassin too violent for his loyalist comrades

Billy Wright, known to all as "King Rat", was one of Northern Ireland's most feared loyalist assassins, surviving for years despite determined efforts to "take him out."

The police wanted to lock him up, regularly arresting him for interrogation, while rival loyalists threatened him and ordered him into exile. The IRA launched up to half a dozen attempts to blow him up.

In the end it was predictable that he should meet a violent death, though it came as a surprise that he should die inside what was supposed to be Europe's most secure prison.

He was enthusiastic about both indulging in violence and speaking about it, his shaven head, heavily tattooed body and characteristic strut radiating restrained menace. He was described as having "a bullet head, close cropped with small ears and deep-set piercing eyes".

But he had more complexities than the average loyalist assassin, having a religious dimension which led him to act for a period as a lay preacher. At other times, though, he did drugs. He also had more brains than most, prison lecturers remembering him as by far the brightest of loyalist pupils.

Yet the fact that he deliberately courted publicity, giving newspaper interviews which kept him in the public eye, made him a marked man. His statements amounted to challenges to both police and the IRA: come and get me, he seemed to say.

He may have had a death wish or at least an acceptance that the path he had chosen would lead to the grave. "Personally I'm a dead man," he once mused. "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."

Wright spent much of his life in the bitterly divided Co Armagh town of Portadown, where he played a leading part in Orange marching disputes in the 1990s. In one incident he ordered the killing of a Catholic taxi-driver.

An Irish government official who met him said his house was "like entering the madam's drawing-room in a brothel. A purple fleecy carpet ran wall-to-wall. A modern touch was provided by the biggest stereo system I've ever seen, and white leather furniture completed the bizarre look."

Although Wright maintained his targets were "the enemies of Ulster" many of the murders in which he is said to have been involved, either as a gunman or planner, were of victims chosen at random.

He was also responsible for the killings of several women, including one who was seven months' pregnant. Another shooting was that of a 76-year-old spinster who was described by a neighbour as "a lovely person, she would not hurt a fly".

Wright spent part of his childhood in a welfare home following the break-up of his parents' marriage. He claimed he turned to violence because of local IRA killings, including some of his relatives. His early convictions included burglary, theft and disorderly behaviour before he graduated to shootings. He was aged 21 when he claimed his first life.

Later he was expelled by his loyalist grouping for refusing to scale down his violence, but instead of leaving Northern Ireland as they demanded he defied them and formed his own organisation, the Loyalist Volunteer Force.

Although he briefly backed the peace process he changed his mind and denounced it as a sell-out.

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