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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 May 2007, 01:36 GMT 02:36 UK
Inquiry into a 'convenient' death
By Chris Summers
BBC News, Banbridge

Billy Wright
Billy Wright was murdered in prison in 1997

A decade ago a maverick loyalist with a reputation for savagery was assassinated by republican gunmen in Northern Ireland's supposedly most secure jail.

Apart from his close family and a small band of fellow loyalist hoodlums, few mourned the death of Billy Wright, who is believed to have ordered up to 20 sectarian murders.

So it may seem strange that 10 years later a public inquiry has just got under way at great public expense.

The reason the inquiry is so important is that it has been given the task of deciding if the British government actually colluded with Wright's killers.

The idea of MI5, the RUC (as it was then) and the Northern Ireland Prison Service teaming up with three members of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) may seem preposterous.

Crucial peace process

But Wright's father David is not alone in believing that his son's murder was seen as vital in removing an obstacle to the peace process.

Mr Wright, now 74, was among those present in the refurbished court house in Banbridge, a pleasant country town south of Belfast.

Those present were asked to cast their minds back to December 1997 when the peace process was "at its most precarious".

Richard English, an erudite professor of politics from Queen's University in Belfast, explained the context in which the Wright murder occurred.

Public inquiries still pending
Rosemary Nelson inquiry. The Catholic solicitor was killed in a car bomb in 1999
Pat Finucane inquiry. Lawyer killed by the UDA in 1989
Robert Hamill inquiry. Catholic killed by a Loyalist mob in 1997

He said the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, Sinn Fein and two small political parties with links to loyalist paramilitaries were engaged in talks with Mo Molam and other government officials which would eventually lead to the Good Friday Agreement.

Professor English said the Democratic Unionists had refused to take part while extremists such as Wright's Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) were openly hostile to the peace process which they felt offered too many concessions to Republicans.

Wright was killed on 27 December, 1997 by three men who were eventually convicted of the murder.

Professor English quoted the late Mo Mowlam as saying at the time that his killing "very nearly killed the peace process".

Billy Wright
David Wright believes the state had a hand in his son's murder

It led to a "spiral of violence" which threatened to undermine both the IRA and loyalist ceasefires.

Dr Mowlam made a famous visit to the loyalist prisoners in the Maze prison to keep them on side.

But ultimately four months later the Good Friday Agreement was signed and the troubles came to an end, he said.

The LVF without the charismatic Wright has since become increasingly irrelevant.

The question which hovers over the inquiry is whether the British government turned a blind eye to Wright's killing or perhaps even connived with his killers.

'Glaring errors'

Derek Batchelor QC, leading counsel for the inquiry, outlined the events of 27 December 1997.

He said the inquiry would look at several glaring errors which led to Wright's death.

They included:

  • The decision to house Wright and other LVF members in the same H Block as the INLA.
  • The security lapses which allowed the INLA to smuggle in two guns.
  • The "standing down" of a prison officer from the watchtower overlooking H Block 6 on the morning of the killing.
  • The fact that a vital CCTV camera was not working.
  • The lapses which allowed a wire fence to be cut by the INLA men.

Alan Kane, counsel for Wright's father, said the question was whether Wright's death was due to "an unfortunate series of events" or deliberate connivance by the authorities.

He then quoted the former chief constable of Northern Ireland Sir Hugh Annesley who said in 1997 in the Daily Telegraph: "It's just a question of who gets to the bastard first, us the IRA or the UVF. You can take your pick."

Mr Kane added his client hoped the inquiry would answer the question of whether the state had a hand in the murder of Billy Wright.

The Billy Wright inquiry is expected to last at least a year.

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