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8 April 2004 Edition

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Unanswered questions about Wright

BY FERN LANE

The DUP's Willie McCrea is pictured greeting loyalist killer Billy Wright

The DUP's Willie McCrea is pictured greeting loyalist killer Billy Wright

The Six-County Prison Service, including the former governor of Long Kesh, seems likely to be the focus of any inquiry into the killing of LVF leader Billy Wright by the INLA on 27 December 1997. In his report, Judge Cory observes that the series of decisions that led up the shooting could be thought by some to be a "controlled explosion", the circumstances of which "demand careful consideration".

His report highlights a number of possible acts of collusion which, he says, merit further investigation by an inquiry. Firstly, he questions why INLA and LVF prisoners were housed in the same block, H6, when they were known to have a "visceral" hatred for one another, and why the "dreadful decision" to transfer Wright to Long Kesh was taken, particularly given that the prisoner who carried out the shooting, Christopher McWilliam, had already made one attempt to kill Wright whilst both were in Maghaberry Prison.

The report also notes that when Wright was transferred, McWilliam made no secret his intention to mount a further attempt to kill him using a smuggled handgun. Intelligence reports also suggested the same thing, and this was discussed at a meeting with the prison governor on 24 October 1997. Despite this, and McWilliam's previous success at smuggling a weapon into Maghaberry, says the report, no effort was made to ensure that he did not acquire a weapon whilst in Long Kesh or to ensure complete separation of INLA and LVF prisoners.

In the light of their knowledge of the INLA intention to kill Wright, says Cory, "the transfer of Billy Wright could be found to be a wrongful act that was capable of constituting collusion". He continues that "the findings of collusion could be made based upon the prison authorities 'turning a blind eye' to the real and imminent danger occasioned by placing Billy Wright in the same H-Block as McWilliam, Kennaway, Glennon and the other INLA members". The failure to move one or other of the groups to another wing, he adds, would in "most Common Law jurisdictions" be considered "to be at least negligent and would very likely constitute wilful negligence".

Secondly, the report questions the standing down of the guard in the H6 observation tower on the day of the killing, apparently on the instruction of the governor. Although it is arguable whether a guard posted in the tower could actually have prevented the shooting, Cory says that "if the guard was instructed to stand down, that could be found to be a collusive act aimed at assisting the killers to shoot Billy Wright".

He also raises a number of other issues, including the fact that the INLA prisoners were given the visitors' list for LVF prisoners for 27 December, meaning that they knew in advance that Wright was expecting a visit on that day; the fact that the authorities knew that the CCTV camera focused on the INLA wing exercise yard was not functioning; and the ease with which McWilliam obtained a gun.

There are, however, a number of aspects of the report that are in themselves somewhat questionable. For example, Judge Cory makes repeated observations about the "perception" of Wright by various parties. He says, for example, that he was "perceived by many loyalists to be an obstacle to the peace process"; that the "perception of Billy Wright as a militant renegade persisted" and that he "was thought, by the INLA, to be a killer of Catholics". Many would argue that none of these is mere perception but rather that all were matters of fact. Most particularly, Wright was known by all sections of the community, including unionist politicians (many of whom, like David Trimble, were perfectly content to deal with him), to be a pathologically sectarian killer. In Cory's own words, Wright was a "violent criminal" who had led a "reprehensible life".

Cory also appears to have accepted wholesale the view of the system which obtained in Long Kesh at the time of Wright's killing offered by prison staff — the vast majority of whom were from a unionist background and who deeply resented the POW status. He portrays warders as victims of the prisoners; constantly bullied, harassed and "conditioned" by "Commanding Officers" (sic) "who did their utmost to intimidate, manipulate and condition the prison staff". He seems to suggest that it was the cumulative effects of this supposed intimidation, rather than the implicit acknowledgement by the British Government that the Long Kesh inmates were prisoners of war, which led to de facto special status and the attendant, relative, freedom within the H-Blocks.

Finally, one issue Judge Cory's report into the death of Billy Wright does not address is the central question of why, if the prison service did collude in his killing — and the evidence he presents is persuasive — it would have done so. His investigation does not reveal any particular antagonism towards Wright on the part of his jailers; indeed, the report records that prison staff by their own admission found him "well behaved and very pleasant". There is nothing to suggest, either in his behaviour, or in the attitude of the prison staff towards him, that they would have liked to see him dead. The report does not acknowledge this contradiction or seek to explain it. Given the antipathy of prison warders towards republican POWS, logic would dictate that if prison staff were going to unilaterally collude in the killing of one prisoner by another within the confines of the prison itself, the target would be a republican rather than a loyalist.

Although Cory make passing reference to the RUC and security agencies in the report, commenting that if they failed to pass on any intelligence they had in relation to the threat against Wright it would be "collusive", his connections with the British security and intelligence services are not explored.

Any inquiry that does not deal with Wright's possible role as a British agent, with the possible role of the British state, rather than just the prison service, in his death, or with the state's complicity in the crimes he committed against the nationalist community, will leave the most important questions about his death unanswered.

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