DUBLIN – DUBLIN (AP) — An investigation into the 1997 killing of Billy "King Rat" Wright — a charismatic Northern Ireland extremist who terrorized the Catholic minority — concluded Tuesday that British authorities played no active role in his assassination behind bars.
The governments of Britain and Ireland said the 702-page report, published after a five-year investigation that cost more than 30 million pounds ($45 million), demonstrated that Wright was targeted solely by imprisoned members of an enemy faction, the Irish National Liberation Army.
Three INLA inmates used two smuggled handguns to shoot Wright seven times at point-blank range as he sat handcuffed in a prison van on Dec. 27, 1997.
The slaying of Wright — who founded and led a breakaway gang called the Loyalist Volunteer Force committed to wrecking Northern Ireland's peace process — sparked a furious wave of retaliatory killings that claimed the lives of seven Catholics. It also raised immediate suspicions of a British conspiracy to eliminate an opponent of their peace efforts.
The report authored by a retired Scottish judge, Lord MacLean, found that guards and managers at Northern Ireland's Maze Prison committed a series of negligent acts that made it easier for INLA inmates to target Wright. These included failing to notice a hole cut in a security fence and announcing Wright's name over a loudspeaker as he was about to be moved to a visiting room to see his girlfriend.
MacLean told a Belfast press conference that such failings were "the result of negligence rather than intentional acts."
Wright's father, David, who led the campaign for a fact-finding inquiry, said the Scottish judge used "too narrow a definition of collusion." He said security lapses within the Maze, combined with authorities' failure to offer special protection to Wright, constituted collusion with the killers.
Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, told lawmakers in London that Wright's "murder in a high-security prison should never have happened. It was wrong and I am sincerely sorry that failings in the system facilitated his murder."
But he said the report found that two often-cited problems — a security surveillance camera in the area wasn't working, and a guard had just left an observation tower — did not facilitate the attack.
The report criticized the Northern Ireland Prison Service for destroying many of its security files covering the 1997 management of the Maze Prison, which once housed several hundred convicted members of Northern Ireland's rival paramilitary groups. Prison authorities insisted they did this because they lacked storage space for files.
"We found nothing to suggest that there was anything sinister in its destruction," MacLean said.
The Maze closed in 2000 after Britain paroled more than 500 paramilitary prisoners as part of the peace process.
Shaun Woodward, Paterson's predecessor as Northern Ireland secretary, said the report had failed to explain how two firearms were smuggled into the prison "and put into the hands of INLA murderers." He suggested that similar security gaps existed in Maghaberry Prison, Northern Ireland's major facility for convicted terrorists today.
For two decades Wright cast a fearful shadow over swathes of Northern Ireland from his power base in the hard-line Protestant town of Portadown. His unit in the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force killed dozens of Catholics in an effort to terrorize the host community of the Irish Republican Army.
"I'm not saying that the republican movement (IRA) is going to give in to the UVF. I'm not that naive," Wright told The Associated Press in a 1992 interview at his Portadown home flanked by flak-jacketed bodyguards.
"But Ulster Volunteer Force strikes help the Catholic people to understand that when they go out and kill our people, someone in their community will pay the price for it. The UVF will make them feel our pain."
When the Ulster Volunteers called a 1994 cease-fire following the IRA's own truce, Wright broke away to form his own organization committed to continuing tit-for-tat slaughter. His movement attracted many thousands of militant supporters who applauded the steely-eyed Wright at public Portadown rallies.
The journalist who dubbed Wright "King Rat" in the Belfast tabloid press, Martin O'Hagan, was killed by the Loyalist Volunteers in 2001.
Wright was never directly convicted of murder — although he often coldly boasted of the righteous blood on his hands — but ended up in prison in 1997 after threatening to kill a Protestant woman due to testify against him in court.
Five months after his death, the Loyalist Volunteers called an open-ended truce. Police say the group today exists only as a drug-dealing gang in Portadown.
Wright report, http://bit.ly/cRkecw
Associated Press Writer David Stringer in London contributed to this report.