Written statement to Parliament

Billy Wright Inquiry report

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Written ministerial statement by Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement.

Today I am publishing the report I received yesterday of the Billy Wright Inquiry - the inquiry set up by the previous government to investigate the death of Billy Wright in the Maze Prison on 27 December 1997. I thank Lord Maclean and his panel for their work on the report.

The Inquiry was established following the recommendation of Judge Cory that there was sufficient evidence of collusive acts by the Northern Ireland prison authorities to warrant the holding of a public inquiry.

The Inquiry was asked to determine whether the state facilitated, or attempted to facilitate, Billy Wright’s death; whether acts or omissions by the state were “intentional or negligent”; and “to make recommendations”.

The panel’s conclusions are clear and unequivocal on the central issue of collusion.

Mr Speaker there was no State collusion in the murder of Billy Wright. The panel finds, “we were not persuaded….that in any instance there was evidence of collusive acts or collusive conduct.”

However, the panel concludes that some “actions did, in our opinion, facilitate his death.” The report details a number of serious failings prior to Billy Wright’s death. The panel is clear that, where failings are identified, these were the result of negligence rather than intentional acts.

The Panel criticise specific decisions taken in relation to the prison. Specifically, the panel finds that “the decision to allocate Billy Wright and the LVF faction to H Block 6 in April 1997 alongside the INLA prisoners was a wrongful act that directly facilitated his murder.”

The Panel also make a series of criticisms of the management and operational running of the Maze prison at the time. Wrongful omissions identified by the panel included the “failure……to strengthen roof defences”, “failing to ensure that the exercise yards…. were secured and checked each night”, and the failure to carry out a “full risk assessment” before the LVF prisoners were returned to H Block 6 in October 1997. Overall the panel identified “a serious failure on the part of [the Northern Ireland Prison Service] and its Chief Executive to deal with recognised management problems in HMP Maze in 1997.”

The Cory Report covered a number of issues on the day of Billy Wright’s murder, including the malfunctioning of a camera and the standing down of a guard in the Observation Tower. With two exceptions, the panel conclude that “none of these occurrences facilitated the murder of Billy Wright”. In relation to Billy Wright being called by name for his visit, “as was the practice”, the panel “do not draw any sinister conclusion from this fact but conclude that it did assist his murderers”. The panel also find that the “cutting of the hole in the fence alongside ‘A’ Wing prior to 27 December undoubtedly facilitated the murder of Billy Wright.”

The panel make a number of conclusions relating to intelligence received prior to Billy Wright’s death, in particular that the RUC’s failure to communicate a key piece of intelligence was a “wrongful omission which facilitated the death of Billy Wright in a way that was negligent rather than intentional.”

The report is also critical of the failure to disclose, and in some cases the destruction of, documentary evidence by institutions and state agencies. Whilst the panel finds that the Prison Service supplied “the available documentary evidence which allowed the Inquiry to fulfil its Terms of Reference”, it is clear that files were destroyed, for which [the NIPS] has apologised unreservedly in its submissions to the Inquiry. In relation to the PSNI, the report notes, “the lack of adequate and effective systems for information management, dissemination and retention with the added element in certain cases of a suspicion that this amounted to deliberate malpractice”.

These are serious and profound failings.

The Northern Ireland Prison Service has already accepted negligence in the civil proceedings brought by the Wright family in 2002. The Prison Service told the Inquiry in its closing submission that it was a matter of profound regret to the service and its employees that Billy Wright was murdered whilst in custody. It apologised to the Wright family for any failings that were exploited by the murderers.

I reiterate that on behalf of the Government today. There was no collusion. But, as the panel make clear, Billy Wright was in the “protective custody of the state” at the time of his death. Whatever horrendous crimes Billy Wright or the LVF committed, his murder in a high-security prison should never have happened.

It was wrong and I am sincerely sorry that failings in the system facilitated his murder.

There are three recommendations in the panel’s report. They cover the retention of prison records; whether any relevant lessons can be learnt for HMP Maghaberry; and whether a process similar to the Patten reforms of the RUC should be established for the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

As the House is aware, prisons in Northern Ireland are now in the main a devolved matter. I will be meeting with Justice Minister David Ford on Monday to discuss these recommendations.

It is of course important to recognise the context to Billy Wright’s death and the conditions in the Maze at the time. The circumstances of the Maze were exceptional, with 500 extremely dangerous terrorists belonging to various rival paramilitary organisations housed within the prison. A large number of the prisoners were convicted of the most heinous crimes.

As the then Prisons Minister Adam Ingram said in 1998, “The Maze is unique. There is no other prison anywhere in the democratic world that has such a concentration of terrorist murderers”.

There is no doubt that those charged with running and overseeing the prison faced an incredibly difficult challenge. And for the most part that challenge was met.  

The panel acknowledges the “organisational and personal pressures and the valiant way in which many staff responded.” Any failings in the management of the Maze identified in this report should not detract from the enormous courage and sacrifice members of the prison service made during the Troubles. Let us not forget that 29 members of the prison service were killed during the Troubles for carrying out their duties. Many more were injured in the line of duty. And, as the report states, many of the families of prison officers “had to move home because of threats made against them.”   

Nor should we forget that responsibility for Billy Wright’s death lies with the INLA and the three individuals convicted of his murder. I condemn their crimes absolutely.

There was never any justification for the brutal terrorist campaigns that the INLA, the LVF and others waged. I am acutely conscious of the enormous suffering such terrorists have caused.

The House will be well aware of the controversies over the cost and length of public inquiries in Northern Ireland. This Inquiry has cost over £30 million and lasted over five years. Our views on these matters are well documented. Let me reiterate to the House, as my Rt. Hon Friend the Prime Minister has done, that there will be no more costly and open-ended public inquiries.

The report is a clear account of the shortcomings in the management and running of the Maze at the time of Billy Wright’s death. His murder should never have happened. But any allegations that the state colluded in this violent killing have now been examined and rejected.

I commend this statement to the House.