Henchmen's swaggering show of force shuts town
THE sinister henchmen who follow the creed of hate and bigotry as preached by self-styled `King Rat' Billy Wright accorded their dead leader the full rites of the loyalist version of a state funeral yesterday.
In a grotesque show of thuggery, mob rule and intimidation conducted beneath the noses of security forces they effectively turned Wright's adopted home of Portadown into a ghost town.
They then swaggered arrogantly through the town to pay their last respects to a man who left a legacy of sectarian hate, violence and intimidation and whose very name was enough to bring a cold sweat to the nationalists of mid-Ulster.
In the final days of 1997 the obsequies of Billy Wright served as a grim alarm call to reality.
Those who believe a lasting peace is just around the corner would have had those lofty notions grievously undermined.
Portadown has always been a litmus test of the Troubles, where the annual acid of Drumcree corrodes and burns in a deeply divided community long after the summer standoff has ended and the residents of Garvaghy Road have breathed a collective sigh of relief at the end of yet another marching season.
The death of Wright, an icon of extreme loyalism of the most vicious kind, raised temperatures in the town from the moment of his bizarre killing inside the gates of what is supposedly the most secure jail in Europe.
By yesterday morning the town was a cauldron of suspicion and barely concealed hostility to the security forces and media especially those with any connection to the Papist South.
There was a false normality in the brightness of mid-morning as shoppers plundered the sales bargains and children in their neon Christmas bikes scooted down High Street.
But all the shops had received and heeded the little polite notices from the LVF asking them to shut down as ``a mark of respect to the late Billy Wright.''
Put like that, it would have seemed churlish to refuse. And of course windows are easily broken and petrol bombs can do a fierce amount of damage to the January Sales window displays.
As the church clock beside the war memorial, still bedecked with the wreaths of Rememberance Sunday, tolled the quarter hours before midday there was a dramatic shift in mood.
Burtons, Boots, Dunnes Stores and all the other chain stores began to press remaining customers to leave.
As the clock chimed midday the shutters came down. All of them. Not a single shop remained open.
It was as if the entire town had been warned of an imminent tornado.
Shop workers waited anxiously outside the shopfronts in small huddles, waiting for the lift that would bring them out of town.
The taxis were stopped, the buses didn't run. Between 12am and 6pm you couldn't buy a loaf of bread, fill an urgently-needed medical prescription, enjoy a coffee or even a pint.
Within half an hour the Christmas lights were off, the Union Jack flew at half mast and the main street was practically deserted.
Cars filled with men then began to pass through the town on the way to Seagoe cemetery where Wright was to be laid to rest.
Emerging from the darkening side streets the swagger men began to emerge but began strutting in the opposite direction, towards Wright's home where a service in his memory was to take place.
If the sheer naked menace of them hadn't been so palpable their bluster would have been laughable.
They were dressed in three-quarter length black leather jackets, black trousers, white shirts with black ties. Almost all had a ring in the left ear and the real heavies carried walkie-talkies clutched in black leather gloved paws.
Beside them were the teenage gurriers who, despite their low rank in the loyalist pecking order, were the ones most likely to target the innocent bystander or the media man or woman whose accent didn't quite fit.
Print and broadcast media were hassled and there was confusion about where footage or photographs could be taken.
Eventually a compromise was reached and the media kept well away from the wake house and the graveside gathered beneath the Christmas tree on West Street.
Again some camera crews were moved on, including CNN, while the likes of myself and the feisty woman from T n G kept our mouths shut.
We waited for upwards of three hours for the cortege to reach us. A colour party of 18, dressed in white short-sleeved shirts in the freezing conditions, marched behind the coffin.
In the gathering gloom it was hard to identify the flags draping the casket but they appeared to be a loyalist banner and the flag of Ulster.
Behind the escort came thousands of mourners walking slowly five abreast. Hundreds of women joined the solemn cortege, which was dignified and conducted in total silence.
Three Volvo estate vehicles carried the family and close relatives of Wright and a large truck carried dozens of floral tributes.
It was almost dark by the time the procession reached the cemetery.
Kenny McClinton, a pastor who was a close friend of `King Rat' and who was also involved in terrorism in the past, gave an oration at the graveside.
McClinton, a former UFF gunmen who served a life sentence for murder, described Billy Wright as complicated, articulate and sophisticated.
As the mourners dispersed, the hard core of Wright's supporters lingered in the cemetery as the rest of the people of Portadown went back to their homes worried about the possibility of rioting in the angry, bitter and menacing days ahead following his death.