Jail chiefs braced themselves today for a major report of a £30m (€367m) UK government investigation into the 1997 murder inside the Maze Prison of loyalist Billy Wright, one of the North's most feared assassins.
It is due to be published this afternoon after Ulster Secretary Owen Paterson addresses the House of Commons and is expected to be highly critical of the prison service when Wright, 37, was ambushed by armed republican prisoners who managed to slip through security and open fire.
The murder, just two days after Christmas 1997, threatened to disrupt the tense all-party political negotiations in the months before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement the following year.
Wright, from Portadown, Co Armagh, leader of loyalist splinter group the Mid-Ulster-based Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), and allegedly linked to up to 20 murders of mostly innocent Catholics, was sitting in the back of a prison van waiting to be taken to meet his visiting girlfriend when he was shot seven times.
Three republican prisoners belonging to the INLA were involved.
Two of the three, Christopher “Crip” McWilliams and John Kennaway, had been transferred into the same H-Block as Wright the previous May, just weeks after Wright was moved from Maghaberry Prison, also near Lisburn, Co Antrim, to serve out an eight-year sentence.
The two men and a third man, John Glennon, armed with a semi-automatic pistol and a double-barrelled .22 Derringer, moved in to kill him after hearing his name announced over the prison Tannoy system.
They surrendered themselves to prison staff and were later sentenced to life imprisonment but released early under the terms of the 1998 peace deal.
At the time of Wright’s murder, one of them told police: “Billy Wright was executed for one reason and for one reason only, and that was for directing and waging a campaign of terror against the nationalist people from his cell.”
The inquiry was set up by the British government after investigations by retired Canadian judge Peter Corry into allegations of collusion by prison staff.
Findings of separate government investigations into two other controversial killings – the murder of human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson, 40, blown up outside her home in Lurgan, Co Armagh, in March 1999, and Robert Hamill, 25, also a Catholic, who was kicked to death by loyalists in Portadown in April 1997 - will be released later.
Today’s report will also deliver its assessment of the role of the security services, including the RUC, at the time of the Wright murder.
Other key areas of the affair which came under scrutiny include:
- The decision to keep Wright and other LVF members in the same H-Block as the INLA;
- Security lapses which allowed a wire fence to be cut and also how the INLA smuggled in two guns;
- The “standing down” of a prison officer from a watchtower overlooking H-Block 6 on the morning of the killing;
- Why a vital CCTV overlooking the area had not been working for several days.
Wright, a father of three nicknamed “King Rat”, was never convicted of any of the killings he and his gang were suspected of.
He once said: “Personally, I am a dead man.
“It would be morally wrong to back off. I have to give my life now. I have kids, but morally I have to lay down my life now. If I was shot dead in the morning, I would laugh in my grave.”
His family always claimed his death was part of a conspiracy involving the authorities and the report’s findings will answer that allegation as well as making a determination on accusations of negligence against the people who were supposed to protect him.
Two Unionist MPs, the Rev William McCrea (South Antrim) and Ian Paisley Jnr (North Antrim) were among the witnesses who testified to the inquiry.
Mr Paisley claimed an unnamed prison officer alleged that prison documents were destroyed after the attack. Mr McCrea said he had been told by a government source a month before that republicans were planning to kill Wright.