Sweeping NI prison reform ruled out after Wright report

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

Northern Ireland's justice minister has ruled out a sweeping Patten-style commission to reform prisons.

An inquiry into the murder of loyalist leader Billy Wright inside the Maze Prison in 1997 found serious failings.

It recommended measures similar to how policing was overhauled, to kickstart "radical change" in how the Prison Service is managed.

David Ford said "radical change" was possible but such a process would be too costly.

"Radical change of the kind which Patten introduced to the police service, which was extremely expensive, is almost certainly not possible," he said.

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

The report published on Tuesday found there had been negligence on the part of the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

Its authors suggested a Patten-style commission could also pave the way for fresh consideration of how its industrial relations are handled.

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.

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 panel found 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."

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, the report said.

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.

In a statement, the current head of the prison service, Sir 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 £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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