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Mr William Wright

Volume 407: debated on Thursday 19 June 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Gillian Merron.]

6.5 pm

I am exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to raise the important matter of the need for an investigation into the death of Mr. William Wright. Before paramilitary prisoners were released under the provisions of the Belfast agreement, it was a regular feature in the lives of Northern Ireland Members of Parliament to respond to requests from paramilitary prisoners to visit them in prison. Few months went past without a visit to Crumlin road, Maghaberry, Magilligan or the Maze prisons. Those visits usually resulted in requests to deal with prison conditions or the particulars of a prisoner's sentence or, at times, to help their families.

In March 1997, my office received a request for me to visit Billy Wright in Maghaberry. The visit was arranged for, and took place on, Tuesday 18 March at 2.30 pm. Billy Wright was the leader of the paramilitary group the Loyalist Volunteer Force, and was serving an eight-year sentence for threatening the life of a woman. My intention, however, is to speak not of the life of Billy Wright, but of his death and the circumstances surrounding it. His father and family are entitled to know the truth.

During my visit, Billy Wright informed me of his concern about the arrangements under which he was being held at Maghaberry prison. He said that he was locked in his cell 23 hours a day without the association granted to other prisoners, and that he believed his life to be in considerable danger from republicans in the prison. Indeed, the alleged reason for the 23-hour lock-up was the prison authorities' concern for his safety. He wanted to move to the Maze prison, where he could be placed on a wing with other LVF prisoners. He indicated that if such a move were not granted by 1 May, he would go on hunger strike. The timing would be such that his death would coincide with the Drumcree period. I have abbreviated the details of my visit because of the time constraint, but the message was clear and disquieting.

On the following evening, my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and I sought out and met, within the precincts of the House, the then Minister with responsibility for prisons, Sir John Wheeler, and outlined our concerns. We told Sir John, whom I regard as one of the most genuine and sincere Ministers that we have had in Northern Ireland, of the consequences of Billy Wright's being killed or dying in prison, and urged that even to avoid years of 23-hour lock-up, a move would be sensible. To what extent our approach influenced the then Minister's decision I do not know; for I hope that others, particularly the governor of Maghaberry prison, were also conveying the view that a move was wise. However, Billy Wright was later moved from Maghaberry to the Maze—before 1 May—and placed in a wing in H-block 6 with other LVF prisoners. Incredibly, however, the LVF wings were in the same block that housed Irish National Liberation Army prisoners. Neither group had declared a ceasefire.

Immediately on Wright's being moved to the Maze, an incident occurred at Maghaberry prison that had a direct link to the death of Billy Wright. Two INLA prisoners, Christopher McWilliams and John Kennaway, took part in a hostage-taking incident in which they used a smuggled weapon. I am now satisfied that McWilliams and Kennaway had intended to murder Wright in Maghaberry prison, but discovered too late that he had been moved to the Maze. Absurdly, the prison authorities decided to punish McWilliams and Kennaway by transferring them to the Maze—the prison to which Wright had been moved.

Some months later, on 27 December 1997, at 10 minutes past 10 in the morning, it was McWilliams, Kennaway and a third man, John Glennon, who murdered Billy Wright by pumping seven shots from a Hungarian PA63 semi-automatic weapon into him as he waited in a prison van in the forecourt of H-block 6 to be taken to the visitor's area for a scheduled visit. The three men who killed Wright made their way to him over the H-block roof and through a hole cut in the security fence. After the killing, the men made no attempt to escape, but simply returned to their wing and, with the intervention of a priest, gave themselves up to officers.

There is therefore no question about who killed Billy Wright. The three Irish National Liberation Army men were convicted of the murder on 20 October 1998 and their organisation claimed full responsibility for it. Yet many matters point to persons in authority in the state having accommodated that murder. The case demands answers.

I am not someone who reacts to each and every incident by calling for a public inquiry. I believe that such an approach devalues the currency of such a call. However, when, as in the case of Billy Wright, a man is shot and murdered in the highest security prison in Europe and today, six years on, so many questions remain unanswered, I believe that only a full public inquiry can settle the matter once and for all.

In August 2001, the Government announced that they would appoint a "judge of international standing" to undertake a thorough investigation of allegations of collusion in several cases, including that of Billy Wright. In May 2002, Judge Peter Cory was appointed and the decision on which cases warrant a public inquiry is awaited. However, the BBC "Spotlight" team investigated the circumstances of Wright's murder and doubted whether the INLA gunmen could have carried out their attack unaided. Very serious questions were posed, but they received no satisfactory answers.

The questions centre on how the INLA gunmen were able to leave their wing and cross the roof of the H-block undetected by prison staff. Why was a security camera covering the murderers' route not working on the day of the murder? Why was a list containing the names of Loyalist Volunteer Force prisoners expecting visits on the day of Wright's murder shown the previous evening to INLA prisoners, thereby alerting them to Wright's movements? How were the two guns used in the killing of Mr. Wright brought into the Maze prison? Why, given the history of McWilliams and Kennaway in smuggling guns into Maghaberry prison, were stricter measures not in place to monitor their activity? Why was a prison officer manning a watchtower twice ordered to leave his post—in contravention of prison standing orders—just before the murder? Why was the advance cutting of the fence not detected? There are numerous other unanswered questions, but time does not permit such a recitation. It is worth adding that remarks made by one of the killers adds weight to the call for a proper investigation. On "Newsnight" on 24 November 2000, Christopher McWilliams said:
"Obviously they turned a blind eye. They were warned on numerous occasions that there was a possibility of trouble outside and inside and they were warned many times."
Billy Wright's father, David, has been tireless and assiduous in his quest to establish the truth of what happened to his son. On several occasions he has gone to the High Court in Northern Ireland to get answers to his questions. Support for the holding of an inquiry has also come from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which was set up, among other things, to advise the Government. In this case, however, the Government seem unwilling to accept their advice.

Recently, Mr. David Wright sought to have access to the police file on the murder of his son. To advance his goal, he sought a judicial review, which was heard by Mr. Justice Kerr. Although he determined that it was not an automatic requirement of article 2 of the European convention on human rights that Mr. Wright be entitled to the police file at that time, he lucidly articulated another stunning and considered conclusion that he had reached. Having reviewed the police file, he was being asked to make it available to the murdered man's father. Having taken account of other so-called investigations, the judge concluded:
"I am satisfied that an Article 2 compliant investigation into the death of Mr Wright has not yet taken place. Such an investigation would have to address directly such issues (among others) as … how the murderers were able to penetrate the forecourt area unobserved; how they were able to obtain the materials to manufacture the weapons used; how they knew that Mr Wright would be in the prison van at the time the murder took place and whether there was any evidence of collusion on the part of members of prison staff None of the inquiries so far held has provided a satisfactory answer to these questions. The obligation to conduct an effective investigation into the death of Mr Wright is a continuing one. The applicant, as the next of kin of Mr Wright, enjoys a current right under Article 2 of ECHR to an effective investigation of his son's death."
In my role as a Member of Parliament, what appear to be photocopies of the contents of the very police file that the courts refused to make available to Mr. David Wright have come into my possession. They were sent to me anonymously and the contents strengthen the call for a full public inquiry. They give rise to a number of serious questions about the authorities' failure to heed any one of a number of warnings from various prison staff before the murder of Mr. Wright.

The file shows that in the months leading up to the murder, prison governors were personally, and in correspondence, warned about security at H-block 6. They were warned about the danger of an attack and about how the attack would take place and they were even given the names of the prisoners who would be involved. The file also shows that prisoners, some of whom were subsequently involved in the murder, were reported examining the fence and determining how to get through it. The governors were told of concerns about camera coverage, about the dropping of the guard at watchtowers and over arrangements relating to visits. All of those concerns were ignored and the officers were left with the impression that their warnings had been a waste of time and that no corrective measures would be taken.

The file contains details of statements showing that Ministers had been acquainted with prison officers' concerns about security at the prison. On 21 January 1998, the then Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, responding to remarks from my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), stated that since May 1997— when the Government came to power—
"the Government have put in place a progressive programme of tightened security measures, including twice daily head counts; cell fabric checks; a comprehensive search of cells and the blocks … and the scanning of all visitors along with other … measures, with more to come."
He continued:
"It is not the case, as the hon. Gentleman maintains, that security has been relaxed since May. The opposite is true, as the measures I have described prove."—[Ofcial Report, 21 January 1998; Vol. 304, c. 985.]
The Minister's claims are at total variance with the contents of the police file. The measures outlined by the Minister were not in place.

The file details how prison staff watched for days as specified INLA prisoners used the painting of a mural on one of their wings near the circle area—the area that joins the four wings of the H-block—to observe the activity of prisoners in the two LVF wings. The experienced officers were able to identify the intended target and the INLA prisoners involved. They were even able to advise the governor how the attack was to be carried out. No responsible governor would have ignored those warnings. Whom did the governor consult about that information? Given the high political sensitivity of the intended attack, did he contact the Northern Ireland Office? Did officials there inform the Minister? We do not know, because—bizarre though it seems—according to the file, those matters were not investigated.

This is a case in which a murder took place that the INLA prisoners had been openly threatening, and was therefore predictable. But more than that, we now know that it was predicted in precise detail, and in good time for action to be taken. It could therefore clearly have been prevented. It must be established why it was not. Who took the decision to do nothing? Who took the decision to allow Billy Wright to be murdered?

Having reviewed the police file, I firmly concur with the remarks made by Mr. Justice Kerr in his judicial review ruling. He said that a proper investigation into the death of Billy Wright
"has not yet taken place."
Perhaps more germane is his observation:
"The obligation to conduct an effective investigation into the death of Mr. Wright is a continuing one."
Mr. Justice Kerr's conclusion was that Mr. David Wright
"enjoys a current right under Article 2 of ECHR to an effective investigation of his son's death."
I am concerned that the Government are actively attempting to conceal the full details of this murder. The Government's Narey investigation was patently a face-saving farce. Under pressure to have an inquiry, the Government sought to suggest that the matter could be investigated by Mr. Martin Narey. Judge Kerr's comments dismiss that investigation as not being compliant with article 2 of the European convention. Indeed, Martin Narey himself, when he reported, never claimed that his investigation into the Wright killing was thorough. Instead, he said that his interest was confined to the background of the shooting, and the general issues that it raised.

It has to be said that, even at that stage, the cover-up had begun. Narey was unable to interview 26 prison officers, all of whom were conveniently absent from work through illness and therefore could not be interviewed. The police file includes a memo from a detective chief inspector stating:
"During interview, some prison officers have expressed concern that complaints made to senior officers seem to have fallen on deaf ears. It was agreed that no prison officers' statements would be made available to anyone other than police."
What does that intention to conceal mean? Is it in line with the fact that these matters never came out at the subsequent court case for McWilliams, Kennaway and Glennon? Were crucial witnesses absent from the inquest for the same reason?

The level of negligence in the prison leading up to the murder of Billy Wright can be explained only by way of deliberate intention. Why was no action taken when clear warnings were given? Why has there been a complete failure adequately to explain or justify those failures to act? The conviction of Billy Wright's murderers should have marked not the end of the investigation but merely the beginning of the next phase. In his evidence to the judicial review hearing, the Chief Constable submitted that the investigation of the death of Mr. Wright was treated as closed on the conviction of those responsible for his murder.

The failure to provide answers to these critical questions, in addition to the numerous questions that have been raised over the past number of years, makes a full public inquiry vital to ensure public confidence. I believe that the police file's contents raise very serious questions about how the matter has been dealt with, and require that a full public inquiry be held.

We do not need to wait for the outcome of Judge Cory's investigation. The Government themselves should fulfil their ECHR responsibility, as instructed by the court. Avoiding a full inquiry is not an option; delay suggests that the Government have something to hide. Evidence that suggests that officers of the state either turned a blind eye to the murder of Billy Wright, or— worse—were actively involved in facilitating it, cannot be ignored. There are many questions that demand answers. Only a fully independent inquiry can provide them.

The Government should not kick for touch by suggesting that the Cory investigation can decide whether an inquiry is needed. Obviously, a recommendation by Cory to hold an inquiry would resolve the matter but a recommendation by Cory not to have an inquiry would not remove from the Government the obligation—of which Mr. Justice Kerr has reminded them—to carry out an investigation compliant with article 2 of the ECHR. The Government have been ducking and weaving too long. It is time for them to act.

6.24 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) on securing the Adjournment debate. Before I respond to some of his specific points, I take this opportunity to express regret on behalf of the Government at the death in custody of Billy Wright. I acknowledge that the murder is most sorely felt by his immediate family, including his father David. However, it would be remiss of me not to draw Members' attention to the very real dangers posed by serious terrorist offenders down the years. Those dangers contributed significantly to the difficult nature of the segregated regime at the Maze prison. That regime enabled prisoners, including, it must be said, Billy Wright, to enjoy a level of control within the regime at the Maze that put significant pressure on both management and staff. Many prison officers and prisoners paid the ultimate price for that, and that is why we continued to resist pressures for segregated conditions.

Before I turn to the murder itself in the very brief time left available to me, I should respond to the comments that the hon. Gentleman has made. He referred to comments made by my predecessor and quoted from Hansard. He is the best judge of his own conduct in bringing such a matter, particularly the confidential file, to such a public arena. I have not seen that file, and I therefore cannot respond in any detail. It occurs to me to wonder whether, had the hon. Gentleman been serious about wishing to get to the bottom of the matter—in his terms—and to examine the issues in detail, he might have sought to consult me, as the relevant Minister, and prison officials. If he had, we could have examined the points that he has made in some detail and sought to give a proper and reasoned response to the allegations that he has made. I am not aware of any such approach having been made to my office, and hon. Members may draw their own conclusions on why he has chosen to raise this matter in this way. The fact of his having possession of such a confidential file is, in itself, something on which I shall have to reflect when I read Hansard after this debate.

The hon. Gentleman pointed to several factors that he interpreted as meaning collusion. I have only three minutes in which to do it, but I shall consider just one or two of them in detail. Whether he likes it or not, I will rest on the Narey report. He has dismissed that report out of hand, but I do not believe that it should be dismissed. It is a serious report.

The hon. Gentleman left me only 10 minutes to reply, not three minutes as I said earlier. He raised a number of serious issues, and it is important that I should use my time to respond.

The Narey report concluded that
"the decision to co-locate the two factions"
at the Maze prison
"was not an unreasonable one for the Governor to make. The decision was taken only after the most serious consideration of its implications. It is important to stress that prisoners were in the same block but on completely discrete wings, separated by six steel gates."
The House may be interested to know that no other accommodation was available at the Maze at that time. It already housed four other factions in seven H-blocks, and one H-block was always kept empty for a rolling refurbishment programme. It should be remembered that Billy Wright requested to go to the Maze in the full knowledge that he would have to be housed with INLA prisoners, since that was the only available accommodation. In addition, as the hon. Gentleman said, he threatened a hunger strike, which would have culminated around the Drumcree protests in July, until his request was met.

Following the hostage-taking incident at Maghaberry, preventing the prisoners and staff who had witnessed that incident from discussing it in any way was a priority, as there was a strong possibility of witnesses being called to any subsequent trial. Given the number of witnesses, the simplest way of achieving that was to remove the prisoners to the INLA wing at the Maze. Magilligan was an option not open to the prison service, as it was, and remains, a medium to low-risk security prison.

Narey's report found that the area of fence from which the hole was cut was out of range of CCTV cameras covering the exercise yard. The prison authorities were aware that one camera was malfunctioning. The hon. Gentleman will know that that camera was maintained by an outside contractor, who had been informed that it was in need of repair. It must be remembered that there were in excess of 200 cameras around the Maze prison at that time. Inevitably, there would be periods when one or more were malfunctioning. The Narey report addressed this issue and others about the insecurity of the roof area, for example, in the following way:
"it must be recognised that in a prison like the Maze the Governor is inundated with warnings, rumour and anecdote."—

No, because in a half-hour Adjournment debate I have limited time, and the hon. Gentleman took a significant time to present his case. [Interruption.] He may shout if he wishes to, but that just limits my ability to respond. The report continued:

"He cannot react to all of them because to do so would prevent the running of the prison: prisoners would never he able to leave their wings. And the observation that Mr Wright was in danger was already appreciated by him. The Governor recognised the risk and attempted to manage the risk",
but in the event the attempt failed. That is the matter of regret that the Government acknowledge.

Narey was unable to establish how the firearms used entered the prison. Rigorous search procedures were in place that self-evidently failed. As with all security matters, a balance has to be struck between the security of the prison, prisoners and staff and their rights and dignity. It is impossible to stop all smuggling into prison without the use of closed visits, where prisoners do not come into contact with their visitors, and draconian search procedures, which would need to include intimate searching.

Narey also made recommendations aimed at preserving the integrity of security fences that were introduced immediately. The report states that the fence is observable from the watchtower. However, it is only the general area that can be observed. It is impossible to detect any interference with the fence itself from the tower, and prisoners had access to that area.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the prison officers in the watchtower overlooking the prison roof. Narey concluded:
"In our view, whether or not the tower was manned, Mr Wright would still have been shot. Even if the tower officer had raised the alarm immediately, only one member of staff could have gained access to the forecourt, and had he intervened to protect Mr Wright, it is likely that he too would have been shot. Moreover the fact that the alleged perpetrators made no attempt to disguise themselves indicates that potential detection or identification was of little concern to them."
The hon. Gentleman made one or two other points that I do not have time to address.

I turn now to the issue of inquiries and the campaign supported by the hon. Gentleman for a public inquiry. It is the Government's view that the death has been adequately investigated. Three men have been convicted for the murder as a result of the police investigation. The findings of the coroner's court concurred with that outcome.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the judicial review. The judgment of Mr. Justice Kerr was against releasing the police file that the hon. Gentleman has used this evening. However, the judge commented that none of the inquiries in his view held so far have satisfactorily answered a number of aspects, and the hon. Gentleman listed those aspects. The judge also said that he would reconsider whether he would reveal the contents of the police investigation once Justice Cory had decided what further action was required.

The Narey report concluded that while the death was regrettable, there was no evidence that manning of watchtowers, cameras working and so on would have made any difference to the execution of the crime. The Government take allegations of collusion seriously. The points—

The motion having been made after Six o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-six minutes to Seven o'clock.