Negligence not collusion led to Billy Wright murder

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, said he is 'sincerely sorry' for the death of Billy Wright

The murder of loyalist leader Billy Wright was the result of serious failings by the prison service, not state collusion, an inquiry has found.

Wright, the head of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), was shot dead inside the Maze prison by republican prisoners in December 1997.

His family believe he was a victim of collusion between prison authorities, the security services and police.

But the report said his murder happened because of negligence, not intention.

Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson told Westminster on Tuesday that the report made it "clear and unequivocal" that there was no collusion.

Start Quote

Having considered the factual findings, it looks like collusion, it sounds like collusion and in my mind amounts to firm and final proof of collusion by state agencies”

End Quote David Wright Billy Wright's father

But Billy Wright's father, David, who campaigned for many years for an investigation into his son's death said: "The inquiry adopted a narrow interpretation of collusion.

"Having considered the factual findings, it looks like collusion, it sounds like collusion and in my mind amounts to firm and final proof of collusion by state agencies in acts and omissions culminating in Billy Wright's death."

Mr Paterson told the House of Commons that the report found there was evidence of negligence on the part of the NI Prison Service (NIPS).

"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,' " Mr Paterson said.

"I am sincerely sorry that failings in the system facilitated his murder."

He added that there was a serious failure on the part of the NI prison service and its chief executive at the time, Alan Shannon, to deal with management issues at the prison.

Mr Paterson said the report noted that there was also a failure on the part of the RUC (former NI police force) to communicate a key piece of information, concluding that this was "a wrongful omission".

The report was also critical of the police and prison service's failure to disclose information and the destruction of evidence relating to the case.

Billy Wright Inquiry Findings

  • No state collusion with the INLA in the murder of Wright
  • Serious failings by prison authorities were negligent, not deliberate
  • LVF and INLA prisoners should not have been co-housed
  • Risk assessments were not carried out and prison management weaknesses were not addressed
  • Key intelligence was not shared
  • Some documentary evidence was destroyed
  • Wright was in the protective custody of the state and the murder should not have happened

Mr Paterson said the inquiry's authors recommended that consideration be given into holding a Patten-style commission into the NI prison service.

They said that such a process might pave the way for "radical change" in the way that NIPS is managed and how its industrial relations are handled.

In a statement, the current head of the prison service, Robin Masefield, said the finding that there was no evidence of collusion dispelled a cloud that had hung unfairly over the service. He said that while there had been negligence, it had not been intentional.

The investigation cost almost £30m and took five years to complete.

The report was also critical of the Police Service of Northern Ireland for its approach to the Wright inquiry.

It said the PSNI had been "slow and reluctant" in providing information which caused the inquiry its "greatest difficulties".

It said that while much of this was due to failings in information management systems, it has a suspicion that there may have been "deliberate malpractice" which involved destroying audit trails and concealing evidence.

The PSNI said on Tuesday it welcomed the inquiry's findings that there had been "no evidence of collusion by state agencies or of any deliberate wrongdoing".

However, it did acknowledge "that failure, by the RUC, to pass on intelligence to prison authorities in April 1997 may have contributed to the chain of events leading to the death of Billy Wright eight months later".

The security service MI5 largely escaped criticism in the report.

The inquiry only said it was "most unfortunate" that a key piece of intelligence about a threat to Wright was not passsed from MI5 to the then security minister Adam Ingram.

Mr Ingram was cleared of any blame. The inquiry panel said there were probably shortcomings in the amount and detail of intelligence information he received but no blame could be attached to him for not acting on information he had not received.

Inquiry Recommendations

  • Review of NI Prison Service, similar to Lord Patten's policing review which led to overhaul of RUC
  • NI Secretary should investigate if other prison documents were destroyed and examine retention processes
  • Government should apply lessons of Maze failings to current arrangements at Maghaberry Prison

The £30m inquiry was prompted by the findings of retired Canadian judge Peter Cory in 2004. It was established in May 2007 under the chairmanship of Lord Ranald MacLean.

The inquiry, which lasted almost five years, heard that there was intelligence information indicating the INLA planned to kill Wright if he was transferred from Maghaberry prison to the Maze.

Nevertheless he was moved in April 1997 and eight months later, he was shot dead by INLA men, Christopher McWilliams, John Kennaway and another man.

McWilliams died before he could be called to give evidence to the inquiry.

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