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Orange Order leader Harold Gracey thanked Billy Wright for UVF Drumcree support

Ian Paisley, David Trimble and Harold Gracey talk to the police on the Garvaghy Road
Connla Young

A senior member of the Orange Order wrote to notorious sectarian killer Billy Wright to thank him for his “support” during the Drumcree stand-off.

Harold Gracey penned his letter of thanks to the loyalist after members of the Orange Order were allowed to march along the nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown in 1995.

The Mid Ulster UVF unit, which was led by Wright, supported the Orange Order after the RUC stopped it from walking along the road.

The stand-off developed after Garvaghy Road residents objected to Orangemen walking along the route as part of an annual parade to nearby Drumcree Church.

As the impasse threatened to escalate the RUC allowed the Orange Order to march through the nationalist district.

Images of former unionist leaders Ian Paisley and David Trimble holding hands in the air in what appeared to be a triumphant celebration as the march neared its end angered nationalists.

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Orange Order leader Harold Gracey thanked Billy Wright for UVF Drumcree support

Despite local objections in the two years that followed the Orange Order was again allowed by police to march through the nationalist district after violent clashes between the RUC and loyalists.

A similar stand-off ended in 1998 when the UVF killed three Catholic children in a petrol bomb attack in Ballymoney, Co Antrim, in 1998.

Although there is an annual junior parade along Garvaghy Road, the main Orange Order has not been allowed to march along the route since 1997.

Wright is believed to have been responsible for overseeing the murder of dozens of Catholics in the Mid-Ulster area while a member of the UVF.

His unit was also responsible for the sectarian murder of Catholic taxi driver Michael McGoldrick near Aghalee in July 1996 - at the height of the Drumcree crisis that year.

It was later said in court the callous murder was a birthday present to Wright, who later went on to form the LVF after he was expelled by the UVF and ordered to leave the north.

Later that year Harold Gracey appeared on a platform at a rally in support of Wright in Portadown.

It has now emerged that Mr Gracey wrote to Wright, after the successful 1995 parade.

Details of the letter are contained in a new book about the UVF published this week.

‘UVF: Behind the Mask’, published by Merrion Press, has been written by Newtownabbey man and academic Aaron Edwards, a senior lecturer in defence and international affairs at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

Mr Edwards has been given unprecedented access to the inner workings of the loyalist group and many of its key figures.

Details of the correspondence emerged in a separate letter sent to double UDA killer turned pastor Kenny McClinton, who was a close friend of Wright’s and gave an oration at his funeral.

In the letter to McClinton, which was written on ‘Portadown District LOL No 1’ headed notepaper and is reproduced in the book, Mr Gracey acknowledged Wright’s role in helping the Orange Order.

“I am also well aware of the crucial role played by Billy Wright, whom I must confess I had never met, and his comrades, in the final outcome,” he said.

“I have by the way written to him to let him know how much I appreciated his support.”

Mr Gracey revealed that Wright asked him if he was going to carry out his “stand to the end”.

He said the killer assured him that he “would support me all the way”.

“Can I also say that at our next district meeting no-one will be left in any doubt of how much we owe to Billy and his friends,” he wrote.

Mr Gracey, who has since died, is said to have spent up to 300 days in a caravan close to Drumcree Church and insisted he would remain there until Orangemen were allowed to pass along the Garvaghy Road.

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