Wright, William (‘Billy’) (1960–97), loyalist paramilitary, was born in July 1960 in Wolverhampton in the west midlands of England, son of David Wright and his wife, both originally from Portadown, Co. Armagh. The Wrights had moved to England because of harassment after David Wright's father defeated an official unionist candidate for Portadown council; they returned to Northern Ireland when Billy was four. His parents' marriage broke up when he was six; Wright spent the rest of his childhood at a children's home in the south Armagh village of Mountnorris, mixing with catholics from nearby Whitecross, and occasionally playing Gaelic games.
Wright sometimes claimed he joined the Ulster Volunteer Force because of the ‘Kingsmills massacre’ of ten protestant millworkers by the IRA near Whitecross in January 1976. In fact, he joined on 31 July 1975, inspired by admiration for Wesley Sommerville and Horace Boyle, who blew themselves up while attacking the Miami showband. He was also influenced, however, by the embattled position of protestants in parts of Armagh; his uncle, father-in-law, cousin, and brother-in-law were killed by the IRA. In 1977 Wright was arrested for hijacking a vehicle and for possessing weapons. Soon after his release in 1980 he was charged with murder on the evidence of loyalist supergrass Clifford McKeown; he was released in 1982 after McKeown retracted, then briefly detained for possessing weapons. Wright studied the Bible in prison; soon after his release he moved away from paramilitarism, became a lay preacher in the Free Presbyterian Church, and engaged in evangelising tours of Ireland. He returned to the UVF after the signing of the Anglo–Irish agreement in 1985, thereafter presenting himself as a Byronic figure sacrificing eternal salvation for his people: ‘What it has cost me, only eternity will tell.’ Wright also attributed the breakup of his marriage (by which he had three daughters and a son) and the closure of his shop in Portadown to police harassment; he consoled himself with a new girlfriend and extensive racketeering.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Wright succeeded Robin Jackson (qv) as the leading mid-Ulster UVF figure. He initially disliked the nickname ‘King Rat’, popularised by a Belfast journalist, then revelled in the fear it generated. His ‘rat pack’, centred on Portadown, carried out numerous sectarian murders with arms smuggled from South Africa. In 1991 he issued a statement admitting that catholics saw him as the devil, and defending indiscriminate sectarian murder as a deterrent; he claimed the UVF fought in self-defence and would cease if the IRA abandoned hostilities. In 1994 he survived a car boobytrap; newspapers began to print his photograph (projecting menace with a practised stare) and indicate that he was ‘King Rat’. He gave interviews showing a sharp though narrow political awareness and a strong concern for image manipulation.
Wright initially declared the loyalist ceasefire of 13 October 1994 ‘the happiest day of my life’. One member of the Progressive Unionist Party negotiating team was seen as representing his interests. In 1995 and 1996 Wright orchestrated protests against attempts to reroute an Orange parade away from the nationalist-inhabited Garvaghy Road. The 1996 protests included the murder of a catholic taxi-driver, Michael McGoldrick; police gave way after suggestions that the police lines might be overwhelmed by force of numbers and Wright's supporters were planning to use armoured diggers and a home-made flamethrower. Wright's role sat uneasily with Orange refusal to talk to republican terrorists, and the local MP David Trimble (who had denounced Wright as a gangster) was criticised for negotiating with him.
Wright had been refused membership of the UVF governing body and complained that loyalists needed tough leaders to drive a harder bargain. His image as victor of Drumcree (ballads were composed in his honour) and his breach of the loyalist ceasefire crystallised tensions with the Belfast-based UVF leadership. Wright was expelled from the UVF and ordered to leave Northern Ireland within forty-eight hours under penalty of death. He openly defied the threat at a rally attended by DUP MP William McCrea and leading Portadown Orangemen. Wright launched the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), spoke of bombing Dublin, and called the UVF–PUP leadership ‘communists’ who betrayed Ulster (they called him a Paisleyite dupe, drug dealer, and MI5 agent). Wright allegedly believed he could overthrow the existing paramilitary leaderships and dominate loyalism, but despite some sympathisers in the UDA and the establishment of a LVF presence in Antrim, most loyalists supported their leaders.
In March 1997 Wright received an eight-year prison sentence for intimidating a woman who testified against two of his men. He continued to direct LVF activities (including several murders) from the Maze prison. On 27 December 1997 three INLA prisoners shot Wright dead as he went to receive a visit from his girlfriend. Controversy persists over this gross failure of prison security. His death was followed by reprisal murders of catholics by the LVF and its UFF allies. The LVF called a ceasefire after the referendum on the Good Friday agreement (1998), carried out token decommissioning to win early release for prisoners, and preferred drug-dealing to the wider-ranging schemes hatched by Wright. It continued its feud with the UVF and forged links with the UDA, while Wright remained an icon for anti-agreement paramilitaries inspired, like him, by hatred, vanity, criminality, and fundamentalism. Admirers (including British neo-nazis) sold Wright memorabilia, painted murals, and tattooed his face on their bodies.
Wright's funeral in Portadown was a major show of strength – shop-closing enforced by intimidation. The loyalist-killer-turned-fundamentalist-pastor Kenny McClinton told the crowd that since Wright was saved in the mid 1980s his actions could not imperil his soul: ‘Billy is not in Hell. He is in Heaven at the feet of God.’ There are murals depicting Wright at the Killycomaine estate, Portadown (where he lived), and the area of the Shankill Road dominated by the UDA. His political sympathisers publish a journal, Leading the Way (1998– ; available in the political collection of the Linenhall Library, Belfast).