Protestant militant 'King Rat' shot dead in N. Ireland prison Wright's death endangers strained peace process

December 28, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Northern Ireland's Billy Wright -- nicknamed "King Rat" -- had a lot of enemies.

The Irish Republican Army tried to kill him at least six times. His fellow Protestant paramilitaries once ordered him to clear out of Northern Ireland or face execution.

Yesterday, he was killed inside Northern Ireland's top-security Maze prison.

The killing endangered a peace process that has been under strain for months, as politicians try to broker a settlement to end decades-long violence that has left more than 3,200 dead. But some leaders spoke against retaliation and called for calm.

Wright, 37, was being escorted to the prison visitor center when he was shot in the back five times by gunmen who climbed onto a prison roof, security sources said.

Three prisoners said to be members of the Irish National %J Liberation Army (INLA), an IRA splinter group, surrendered after the shooting, and two guns were recovered.

Wright was the suspected leader of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, a group reputed to have been behind the killings of numerous Roman Catholics.

In March, he was sent to jail for eight years for threatening to kill a woman as a punishment for talking to police.

His death threatens to inflame hostilities between majority Protestants and minority Roman Catholics.

For years, militants on both sides used violence to further their cause, with Protestant loyalists seeking to retain Northern Ireland's links with Britain, while mainly Catholic republican radicals tried to forcibly unite the six northern counties with the southern Irish Republic.

The Loyalist Volunteer Force -- which has never backed the loyalist cease-fire -- said last night in a statement that it would "widen its theater of operations in the coming weeks."

Ken Maginnis, a member of Parliament and a security spokesman for the main Protestant political party, the Ulster Unionists, called for the resignation of Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam and of top officials overseeing the Maze.

"Now we see the absolute folly of Northern Ireland Office ineptitude in dealing with the most dangerous terrorists in Western Europe," he said.

Mowlam called Maginnis' resignation demand "inappropriate, unhelpful and premature."

Describing Wright's death as "an attack on the peace process," she said, "I would say to everybody to show calm and common sense. Taking to the streets and taking other action at this point will not stop the chaos and misery that we have lived through in Northern Ireland for so many years."

David Ervine, of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party, called Wright's death "senseless and needless" but urged loyalist guerrillas not to retaliate.

"Let's not walk down the road that is laid out for us," he said. "Let's look and see what has been the intention of the INLA. Let's see why at this time, specifically at this time."

A new round of all-party talks in the peace process is planned in the new year. The process received fresh impetus with the election of Labor leader Tony Blair as prime minister and the reinstatement by the IRA this year of a cease-fire that lasted from August 1994 until early 1996.

Wright had refused to accept the loyalists' August 1994 cease-fire, and in August 1996, the Combined Loyalist Military Command, an umbrella group, ordered him to leave Northern Ireland within 72 hours or face "summary justice."

Instead of fleeing, Wright went on television to press his case.

"If I die, then I will die believing what fellow unionists believe in," he said during one interview.

Wright's fearsome reputation earned him the nickname "King Rat."

He joined the loyalist cause as a teen-ager after the IRA killed 10 Protestants near his home. Wright said the IRA also killed three of his relatives.

He was previously jailed on hijacking and arms charges.

He told Britain's Press Association, "Of course I live on my wits. We all do, but I hold a political opinion, and I vehemently disagree with people trying to impose their will upon me. I am a defiant person."

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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