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Why death of King Rat is dark and dirty riddle

Maybe Billy Wright was just too big for loyalists to kill - too big a player in Ulster's war for the guns of the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando to be fired at him.

And maybe, then, the INLA did what those organisations could not - or would not - do.

The Wright murder inside the Maze Prison on December 27 1997 came in a gun attack led by Christopher 'Crip' McWilliams - serving a life sentence for the murder of a Belfast bar manager Colm Mahon six years earlier.

McWilliams had been put out of the bar, and returned with a gun. So, the stories of the two killings are very different.

The Wright shooting was part of a decades-long conflict; one of the so-called 'spectacular' operations. The killing of Colm Mahon had nothing whatsoever to do with that long war.

Billy Wright was one of those big loyalist characters - in that category with Adair and Stone.

His 'war' story was inside the UVF, inside a unit based in Portadown and attached to the mid-Ulster 'brigade'.

That was until the mid-1990s and the declaration of the Combined Loyalist Military Command ceasefire.

Wright, like Adair and Stone, could not cope with the 'peace'.

The pages in his story are about killing, about drugs, about Drumcree and that marching standoff in his hometown; about the dirty war and suggestions that he was an agent; about the UVF and then the LVF; about the jail shooting, suspicions of collusion and then the public inquiry.

Whether his reputation and reality match up depends on whom you speak to.

The day of his killing is one I remember in fine detail - one of those shock and headline days; the shock being that Wright was killed inside a supposedly high-security jail.

At the Maze, INLA and LVF prisoners shared an 'H' block. They were enemies, too close to each other; within touching and shooting distance.

The first call I took that morning was from Richard McAuley - a senior aide to the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. Next on the phone was a police officer, then a loyalist, then a politician.

This was the story of what had happened inside the jail beginning to reach outside.

I called one of Wright's associates, Mark Fulton, who was on his way to the prison. The news that was emerging on the outside was true.

In the emergency control room at the jail a report of the shooting was received at 09.59 and by 10.53 Wright was pronounced dead.

The previous year - on August 28, 1996 - I sat in an office on the Shankill Road in Belfast with another journalist, Ivan Little.

There were three loyalists in the room, representatives of the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando, the organisations that made up the Combined Loyalist Military Command.

They had a statement to read to us. An 'investigation' had been concluded, and a 'directive' issued.

"As from midnight tonight, Mr Billy Wright has 72 hours to leave Ulster. Mr Alec Kerr must remain at all times in isolation while in custody.

"Upon his release, he must also leave Ulster within 72 hours. Failure by either man to comply with this directive will result in summary justice for their treasonable and subversive activities.

"Anyone supporting these persons in their activities will be similarly dealt with."

Kerr had been a UDA 'brigadier' - stood down by that organisation and, like Wright, had become a problem in the loyalist peace. The two became identified with an emerging splinter faction: the Loyalist Volunteer Force.

Within hours of that Shankill Road meeting in August 1996, I spoke to Wright and he told me he was going nowhere.

And this is what I mean about him being too big for loyalists to kill. He dismissed their directive; publicly defied them.

And, then, in a place where he would have believed he was safe, the INLA caught up with him. And, in that confined space in a prison van, he had no chance.

The UDA brigadier Jackie McDonald - who was part of that leadership that ordered Wright and Kerr out of the country - has many different stories to tell about the Portadown loyalist.

He says Wright once offered him two army issue SA80 rifles almost as a 'trophy' if the UDA would carry out a killing on his behalf - an offer McDonald says was declined.

Then, there are other stories: Wright threatening McDonald with 'summary justice' and, when the ceasefire was announced, Wright telling a loyalist audience to dump their guns and "make a few bob out of selling drugs".

He had enemies and he had friends. Years before his killing, the IRA claimed a spy within its ranks had been given a 'plan for the assassination of Billy Wright' - a plan provided by a handler with a clear purpose.

"He [the agent] was told when the IRA kill Wright, you'll be well in there," the IRA claimed in a statement in 1992.

And years after the killing in the Maze, a Special Branch officer told me that using sources within the UVF, they had "influenced the move to expel Wright [in 1996]".

Wright was part of a mixed-up war - a man who lived and operated in open and hidden places. He was part of the killing and was, in his turn, killed.

As in so many other cases, we know part of his story - but not all of it. And we never will.