“On this day 1997, the loyalist terrorist Billy Wright was shot dead by republican gunmen inside Northern Ireland’s high security Maze jail. During the Troubles, Wright was considered one of the region’s most feared assassins and thousands of mourners attended his public funeral. A subsequent inquiry into the murder called out prison authorities for their negligence.
Wright was born in Wolverhampton, England in 1960 to Protestant parents from Northern Ireland. He moved with his mother to a village in County Armagh, in Northern Ireland when he was a young boy shortly before the Troubles spread. Wright, like many boys his age, was swept up in the Troubles and his loyalty built towards the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). As a teenager, he was relocated to live with an Aunt in Portatown–an area known as the “”Orange Citadel”” due to its Protestant loyalist base.
In 1975, Wright joined the UVF and was subsequently trained to handle weapons and explosives. Shortly afterwards he was arrested on possession of firearms and was sentenced to Maze prison. It wouldn’t be his final arrest, or his last visit to Maze.
Wright, then nicknamed King Rat, went on to become the commander of the UVF’s Mid-Ulster Brigade in the 1990s, and he is thought to have ordered up to twenty sectarian murders, although he was never convicted of any of them. The UVF’s leadership ousted Wright in 1996, after he directed an unauthorised killing, and Wright went on to form the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF). It was as the leader of the LVF that Wright was murdered in Maze prison by members of the republican paramilitary group, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).
Maze prison was the primary jail for paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles. It was divided into sections, segregating loyalists and republicans, in order to avoid internal trouble. Wright was imprisoned there in 1997 on charges of making a threat on a woman’s life. He continued to direct operations from within the prison, and the rival INLA was determined to take him out.
On 27 December, Wright was waiting in a van to be escorted to see his girlfriend in the visitor’s section. Knowing this, three armed members of the INLA crept through a pre-cut wire fence and climbed onto the roof of a building overlooking the van. Guards saw the men and activated an alarm that triggered the closure of the prison’s gates. The van, with Wright in it, was trapped in the prison yard. The three men jumped down to the yard and shot Wright at close range seven times.
Wright’s murder, and the subsequent inquiry, made international headlines. The Red Cross, only a few weeks before the murder, labeled Maze prison a “”powder keg”” and numerous threats were reportedly made on Wright’s life. The murderers were convicted in 1998, but were subsequently released due to the Good Friday Agreement. Wright remains a loyalist icon today.”
Credit: © UK History / Alamy
Caption: Billy Wright was considered one of the region’s most feared assassins.