Psychopath Billy Wright and the question of collusion
An inquest into one of the last loyalist murders of the Troubles has raised the question: was the notorious LVF killer working for the Security Services? Brian Rowan reports.
The big collusion stories here have emerged from that secret and protected world of agents and the practices of the so-called "dirty war".
Think of the headlines of the Brian Nelson story inside the UDA, Freddie Scappaticci (or 'Stakeknife') inside the IRA, Mark Haddock inside the UVF, and what is about to emerge in the case of another loyalist, Gary Haggarty.
Haggarty - a one-time terror leader and an agent working for Special Branch - has turned "assisting offender", or what in old money was called "supergrass".
He faces more than 200 charges including murder, and has been talking not just about himself but others within loyalism and inside Special Branch.
"A can of worms" no longer adequately describes this dark side of the conflict story.
It has got to the point where collusion is no longer contested. It is a conflict fact, with the only arguments and debates now around the scale and definition of what happened.
It is not just about the agents, but others in intelligence and in the hidden plays of what happened.
Nelson, Scappaticci, Haddock and Haggarty merely scratch the surface; they are but corners in a bigger picture.
Agents interrogating and exposing other agents and agents killing other agents became part of the tangled web.
We will never know the full facts or the extent of what happened and how it happened.
Billy 'King Rat' Wright was one of the bogeymen of the conflict period, one of those whose name kept emerging in the page turns from one killing to another. In 1997 he was shot dead inside the Maze Prison in an attack involving INLA inmates.
Was Wright an agent? And if so, who was he working for?
These have become questions as part of the examination of a killing that dates back to May 1994, just months before the IRA and loyalist ceasefires.
The victim was Roseann Mallon (76), who was killed by bullets fired through a window of a house from a Czech-manufactured VZ58 rifle. That rifle was part of a consignment smuggled into Northern Ireland in the late-1980s - weapons identified with a loyalist killing surge in the years leading to the ceasefires.
Wright was a suspect in the Mallon murder, his name attached to that killing, as it was to so many others.
At the time the UVF in mid-Ulster claimed to have been targeting Ms Mallon's nephews, republicans Christopher and Martin Mallon.
And now, more than 20 years later, there are many un- answered questions, including those very specific questions about Wright.
This type of probing usually gets pushed away as part of a policy of neither confirming nor denying. But Wright is dead, and so the usual protection-of-life arguments fall.
This does not mean that covert intelligence practices become a kind of open book. There are secrets that will always be protected - and not just by those in intelligence, but also by the IRA and loyalists.
As part of inquest proceedings, there was nothing in material provided by the PSNI to indicate that Wright was an agent or an informer. But there is, of course, a wider frame and other possibilities. What about MI5? Or the military? Could he have been working for them?
This is the next digging, but will anything be shovelled to the surface? We don't know. There are loyalists who certainly have suspicions about Wright, about the contacts he had here and elsewhere and who they think he was working for.
Part of that suspicion goes back to a meeting in London attended by loyalists and "men in grey suits". It was organised by Wright and he proposed a loyalist decommissioning stunt involving fertiliser, or home-made explosives.
This was intended to, in some way, create pressure for the IRA to force that organisation into a position where it would have to respond and begin to destroy its arsenal. Others considered his plan ludicrous. It didn't happen.
"There was a lot of suspicion," one loyalist commented. Wright became a problem in the peace.
The-then Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) ordered him out of Northern Ireland, but he refused to go and became the leader of a dissident Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF).
Then, a little over a year later, he was shot dead inside a supposedly top-security prison. His killer, Christopher 'Crip' McWilliams, was serving life imprisonment for the murder of Catholic bar manager Colm Mahon in Belfast city centre in December 1991).
We will never know all of the story about Wright and who he linked in with; who decided he had become too big a problem and who used what influence to have him stood down by that mainstream loyalist leadership back in August 1996.
Weeks after the Mallon shooting a covert surveillance operation was discovered at the murder scene. It had been in place for weeks before and, then, weeks after the killing.
And, following a report suggesting that the murder weapon - that VZ58 rifle - had no previous history of use, it emerged that it was linked to other Troubles murders.
All of this adds to the suspicion.
And it is what keeps what happened 30 years ago, or 20 years ago, or 10 years ago, in the present.
The Mallon killing - like so many other killings - has so many unanswered questions; questions that become awkward and uncomfortable when they begin to probe that world of intelligence and agents.
"The concurrence of Special Branch/Army/MI5 threat and loyalist assassination is at the heart of the Mallon case," Mike Ritchie of the Relatives For Justice project claimed.
"In Mallon, we have threats, hidden cameras, covert Army units, surveillance, free access to the murder scene, a suspected agent (now deceased and therefore no longer requiring protection), weapons imported with MI5 connivance.
"What we don't have is a State yet willing to tell all its dirty secrets. Until we do, we'll have to keep digging." Those places of intelligence and intelligence policies remain secret and guarded and protected. And it is within those places that the stories of agents (and agent-handling) and the stories about who knew what and who didn't want to know what are hidden.
These are places of national security trespass for those seeking answers to questions not just in relation to the Mallon murder, but many other killings. It will always be the case. National security secrets will be protected.
But this is only part of the story of the past. The IRA and the loyalist organisations will also protect their dirty secrets and, for many others seeking truth from those organisations, the digging continues.
This is what happens after conflicts, whether here or elsewhere. The whole story is never revealed. Edited and redacted versions emerge.
We know loyalists crossed lines to work for MI5, the military and the Special Branch, and that republicans crossed those same lines.
Was Wright an agent? It is another question asking for another answer, as that excavation of the past continues.