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Billy Wright Inquiry

Volume 515: debated on Tuesday 14 September 2010

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement. Today I am publishing the report, which I received yesterday, of the Billy Wright 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. There was no state collusion in the murder of Billy Wright. The panel finds that

“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, they were the result of negligence rather than intentional acts.

The panel criticises 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 makes 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 the 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 Loyalist Volunteer Force prisoners were returned to H block 6 in October 1997. Overall the panel identified

“a serious failure on the part of the NIPS and its Chief Executive to deal with recognised management problems in HMP Maze in 1997.”

The Cory report covered a number of issues relating to 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 finds 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 makes a number of conclusions relating to intelligence received prior to Billy Wright’s death, in particular that the Royal Ulster Constabulary’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. Although the panel finds that the Northern Ireland 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 apologised unreservedly in its submissions to the inquiry. In relation to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, 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”.

Those are serious and profound failings. The NIPS 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 while 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 makes 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 meet 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 and, as the Minister who then had responsibility for prisons, 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 that members of the Northern Ireland Prison Service made during the troubles. Let us not forget that 29 members of that 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 Loyalist Volunteer Force and others waged. I am acutely conscious of the enormous suffering that 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 more than £30 million and lasted more than five years. Our views on these matters are well documented. Let me reiterate to the House, as my right 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.

I thank the Secretary of State for an early copy of his statement and join him in paying tribute to the inquiry chairman, Lord MacLean, his panel, the supporting law officers and officials. I also thank the Secretary of State for allowing hon. Members to read the report in advance of his statement.

We join the Secretary of State in putting on record our sincere thanks to the many brave men and women of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, many of whom gave their lives in the course of the troubles.

This has been an important inquiry. Whatever the context of the troubles, and whatever the crimes Billy Wright had committed—which led to his serving a custodial sentence—nothing should excuse or condone the terrible events two days after Christmas in 1997 that led to his murder while in the protective custody of a high-security prison. I share the Secretary of State’s expression of sorrow for the events and failings that happened.

Although the report addresses some of the so-called irregularities, we note Lord MacLean’s final paragraph:

“To our regret no explanation emerged in the evidence as to how the two firearms were introduced into the prison and put into the hands of his INLA murderers.”

The absence of an explanation is extremely serious. Furthermore, it has potential implications for current security policy in Maghaberry. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that all the lessons on security in prisons have been learned, especially given the events of the past 12 months?

In his recommendations, Lord MacLean observes that in 1997 the Maze was the sole prison in Northern Ireland holding the most dangerous terrorist prisoners. Given that today Maghaberry is the sole maximum security prison, can the Secretary of State tell the House what assessment he has made of the current policy for accommodation?

This inquiry, which, significantly, was converted to be held under the Inquiries Act 2005, and is therefore fundamental evidence of the good faith and efficacy of the Act, is extremely important to the family of Mr Wright. The inquiry needed to determine whether any wrongful act or omission by the prison authorities or other state agencies contributed or led to the murder of Billy Wright—or, as others have put it, whether there was collusion. The inquiry’s conclusion is very clear. Crucially, it was not persuaded by the evidence it was able to obtain

“that in any instance there was evidence of collusive acts or collusive conduct.”

The Secretary of State accepts this, and so do we.

In accepting the inquiry’s firm conclusion that there was no collusion, however, the Secretary of State will have noted Lord MacLean’s concern to qualify Judge Cory’s definition of the word “collusion”, expressing concern at the “wide definition” used by Judge Cory. How does the Secretary of State reconcile these different definitions, especially given the possibility that further inquiries might also qualify the definition, the consequences of which might allow some to draw contradictory interpretations, and even contradictory conclusions?

At Weston Park, the British and Irish Governments agreed to look into the possibility of public inquiries into several cases of alleged collusion. The inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane has not yet been established. The House will know that when I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, we made it clear that it would be in the public interest to make an urgent decision on how to proceed with the Finucane inquiry once, and as soon as, Lord Saville had produce his inquiry.

The Government handled the publication of the Saville inquiry with great dignity, sensitivity and skill. Three months have now passed. In his statement today, the Secretary of State quoted the Prime Minister’s words that there would be no more costly and open-ended public inquiries, but he missed out the qualification that the Prime Minister used in his statement on Lord Saville’s report. So in the light of the Secretary of State’s words today, is he effectively telling the Finucane family that they will not have an inquiry?

The Secretary of State rightly sets great store by the work of the Historical Enquiries Team. However, where we differ is in the belief that the HET can deal with all the problems of the past. He must appreciate from the inquiry published today that the HET would have neither the budget nor the resources to mount an investigation such as the one into Billy Wright’s murder. This inquiry alone would have exhausted the entire budget of the HET, which is now tasked with looking at several thousand unsolved deaths and murders.

That brings us to the nub of the issue. Most of the families of those who died in the troubles simply want to know the circumstances of the deaths of their loved ones, and so bring closure to terrible grief and tragedy. Northern Ireland cannot be held in the grip of its past, but it will not be released from that grip just because the British Government say so. Reconciliation will require a process—and a process for everyone—but one that must recognise that no one size can fit all. Closing down the inquiry route for all, without having established a proper alternative, resourced and adequately funded, would be to take a serious risk with the stability not just of the politics, but of the lasting peace of Northern Ireland. On that, the Secretary of State should be cautious. I urge him to reflect carefully.

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his opening comments. He asked a number of questions. First, on the lessons for prisons, he played a huge part in ensuring that prisons were devolved. It is not for me to make judgments today about the comments in the tribunal’s report. I have a meeting with the devolved Minister, David Ford, on Monday, and I will go through those recommendations with him. The same applies to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about Maghaberry. There are 70 separated prisoners in Maghaberry at the moment, which is an enormous contrast with the concentration of 500 prisoners in the Maze in 1997. Again, however, if there are lessons to be drawn from today’s report, they are to be drawn by the devolved Minister and those who work under him, and then put into practice.

On collusion, the right hon. Gentleman quite rightly pointed out that there is a contrast between Judge Cory’s definition, which ran to 765 words, and the shorter version, which Lord MacLean came up with. For the benefit of the House, let me read the concise definition of collusion that Lord MacLean came up with in the report:

“For our part we consider that the essence of collusion is an agreement or arrangement between individuals or organisations, including government departments, to achieve an unlawful or improper purpose. The purpose may also be fraudulent or underhand”.

That is a good distillation of what Judge Cory was aiming at. We have to take the definition given by the tribunal in the report, and the report was quite clear: there was no collusion in this case.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Finucane case. As with the last time he raised the issue, I have written to the Finucane family. He wrestled with the problem when he was in office, and although I am fully aware of the difficulties and sensitivities associated with the case, it is right that I talk to the family first, before deciding how we proceed further.

The right hon. Gentleman then talked about the past. He quite rightly contrasted the £30 million spent on the one death that we are discussing today and the £34 million that was the original budget, over six years, for the HET, which is looking into 3,268 deaths. My view is that this asymmetrical approach to the past, with an extraordinary intensity of effort put into a small number of cases, is not fair and is invidious. I hope that we will get the same reaction today that we had to Saville—that it was an effort well spent—but for the future, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, there is no consensus on how we handle the past.

The right hon. Gentleman called for submissions reacting to the Eames-Bradley report, which he received in October and which, in fairness to us, we published in the summer. I am listening to parties in this House across the board, and the Minister of State and I are going round Northern Ireland talking to numerous people and groups. Sadly, however, as he saw from those replies to Eames-Bradley, there is just no consensus. It is not for us, as the Westminster Government, to impose one; rather, it is our task to try to find a way forward in close collaboration with local politicians and local groups. That is how we intend to approach the past.

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and the report. While acknowledging the mistakes that have been made—mistakes that are highlighted in the report—I join him in paying tribute to the many prison officers who have worked against a background that has not been seen on the mainland or in many other countries. Indeed, 29 prison officers lost their lives—28 of them outside the prison, which shows the danger that they faced as they went about their work.

Does the Secretary of State agree that this report, and the Saville report on Bloody Sunday, highlight the waste involved in the years of the troubles, and the waste that terrorism brings in terms of lost lives and wasted opportunities? Does the report not point to the fact that the way forward for Northern Ireland must surely be through peace and democracy?

It is difficult to bring closure when there have been so many deaths in Northern Ireland, but relatives involved with Bloody Sunday, and now those involved with the Billy Wright report, have received some form of closure. There are, however, many crimes, including Omagh, that have not been properly investigated or been the subject of such a report. Will the Secretary of State tell us what he intends to do about that?

I thank the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for his comments, and commend the Committee for the work that it does for Northern Ireland. He is absolutely right to say that the more we go into the details of these cases, the more apparent the traumatic waste of the troubles becomes. We would like to work with him and his Committee as we seek a way forward on handling the past.

On the question of Omagh, I shall be having a meeting with the relatives affected by that appalling atrocity reasonably soon. As I said earlier, it is our intention to talk to as many people as we can over the coming months, to see whether we can find a means of handling the past that attracts broad support. Sadly, however, I am fully conscious that however hard we try, we will not come up with something that pleases everyone.

I thank the Secretary of State for this report and for his comments today. I want to pay tribute to Mr David Wright, Billy Wright’s father, who is one of my constituents; the family as a whole lived in my constituency. David Wright went the extra mile to try to find the truth of how his son died. No matter what his son was in prison for, he was the responsibility of Her Majesty’s Government and the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

We got the report this morning. It contains 700-odd pages, and even Einstein could not have comprehended it all in the given time. It highlights to me, however, the difficulties that existed at that time in the prison. I pay tribute to the prison officers, who have done a sterling job down through the years, but the senior management of the Prison Service have some questions to answer. Will the Secretary of State tell us what confidence he can give to the people of Northern Ireland in relation to the Prison Service going into the future, and whether any of the senior management who are still alive will pay a price for this?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and I endorse his feelings for his constituent, Mr David Wright, whom I met a couple of weeks ago. He has battled staunchly to try to find out how his son died. I also echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and those of the Chairman of the Select Committee, about those who work in the Prison Service, who were given great praise in the report.

As for the future of the Prison Service, that matter is now in local hands. It is down to the local Justice Minister, who is accountable to the Assembly and sits on the Executive. I will sit with him on Monday and we will go through the very serious failings that have emerged from the report—which are, of course, from another era—and through its recommendations. What happens next, however, is very much down to the local Minister, working with local politicians.

I too have met David Wright; unfortunately, I never met Billy Wright, but I too felt David Wright’s pain as a father. I have also met many victims of Billy Wright and the LVF. We remember them today, just as we should remember all the victims of all the terrorism of the INLA, who will have very mixed feelings on a day like today.

The Secretary of State has told us in the statement that the report emphatically rejects the idea of collusion. But does he not agree that that is partly because the report relies on the fact that the word “collusion” was not in the terms of reference for the inquiry and also because it specifically demurred from Judge Cory’s definition of collusion—a definition that was, of course, clearly embraced by the police ombudsman in the recent report about Claudy?

As for the findings, the report identified six wrongful omissions by the Northern Ireland Prison Service, which the panel say facilitated the murder or death of Billy Wright. Three further findings of wrongful omissions were identified that indirectly facilitated his murder, as well as two wrongful acts by the NIPS, one of which is held directly to have facilitated the murder, and one serious failure on the part of the Prison Service and its chief executive, involving a decision with ministerial knowledge, with conclusions attached to that to the effect that wrongful acts or omissions indirectly facilitated the murder. One Maze prison practice was concluded to have assisted the murder; one further prison failure undoubtedly facilitated the murder; and one wrongful omission by the Royal Ulster Constabulary that facilitated the murder was held to be negligent rather than intentional. In relation to the same issue, there was one most unfortunate conclusion against the security service. Yet all that adds up to “no collusion”, so what does it add up to?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I have to remind him that we did not commission this inquiry and we did not set the terms. We received it yesterday afternoon and we have come straight to the House to publish it. The hon. Gentleman quite rightly lists the very severe criticisms of factors that led to the murder of Billy Wright in prison, which were serious failings that should not have happened to any British citizen in protective custody in a high-security prison. I have been open about that and I have sincerely apologised on behalf of the British Government. In fairness to ourselves, we have to take the report as commissioned and as it has been presented to us, and under those terms, the tribunal is quite clear that there has been no intent of collusion and no act that could be regarded as collusive either by commission or omission.

For a citizen to be murdered while in the protective custody of Her Majesty’s Government is shocking and disgraceful. When one considers that that person was murdered as a result of actions and omissions by agencies of the state, it is all the more shocking and disgraceful. Clearly, there are still unanswered questions, not least about how firearms came to be in possession of the killer. As to the missing and destroyed files and documents referred to—they were destroyed by both the PSNI and by the Northern Ireland Prison Service—to what extent is the lack of those documents and files a contributory factor in the inability to get to the truth of what really happened on that day?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point—that it is most regrettable that a large number of documents were destroyed. It is wrong, and the report goes into some detail to show that a large amount of documentation was destroyed or lost. The report goes on to say, however, that nothing was found to suggest anything “sinister” in the document destruction. We should not forget that this was an inquiry into whether there was collusion. Did the British state do something deliberate or not do something by omission that led to the murder of Billy Wright? Having looked at more than 30,000 pages and after 152 days of hearings, the inquiry’s conclusion was that there was no collusion. We have to take the report as it has been presented to us.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. As my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has said, none of us should forget the pain and suffering of many people at the hands of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland over the past 35 years. We must never forget the actions, either direct or indirect, of the late Mr Wright, which resulted in the loss of life in the general Portadown-Craigavon area, or his actions in relation to the whole Drumcree crisis. We must also not forget the pain and suffering of his father and his family, because those events resulted in his death, which should never have happened.

Will the Secretary of State outline the advice and recommendations that he will give Minister Ford when he meets him next week, with due reference to a possible commission to produce a root-and-branch review, and to the systemic failure of the management of the Northern Ireland Prison Service? There was no conjunction between policy and operation. Will the right hon. Gentleman also tell us what efforts he will make to assuage the fears of Mrs Finucane and her family, and the Ballymurphy families, who are also suffering at this time and who are seeking truth and justice in relation to the deaths and murders of their loved ones?

I wholeheartedly endorse the comments of the hon. Lady and her hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). People suffered at the hands of the INLA, the LVF and the Ulster Volunteer Force and I wholeheartedly condemn those who caused that suffering. We should not forget that it was terrorists who caused those deaths.

When I meet the Justice Minister on Monday, I will go through the recommendations in the report. However, they are not for me to impose. That is what devolution is all about. Devolution is in the hands of local Ministers. We will have a thorough and open discussion, because, as the hon. Lady says, the facts involved are shocking, but we should also bear in mind that those facts date from a long time ago, and concern an institution that has long since closed. What I have seen leads me to believe that there is no comparison between the Northern Ireland Prison Service today and the service that struggled to handle the extremely difficult circumstances of holding 500 determined murderers in the Maze.

The hon. Lady asked briefly about the Finucane and Ballymurphy cases. I am due to have meetings with those concerned, and I think it would be wrong for me to jump the gun before I have met them.

The Maze prison, where the murder occurred, is in my constituency. I well recall the events, and the subsequent inquiries and investigation by the police. I am concerned about the fact that the report does not identify how the weapons were brought into the prison. That remains a key issue. All the other failings were important, but it is doubtful whether the murder could have occurred had those weapons not been available to terrorists in what was reputedly the most high-security prison in Europe. I do not think that we can allow the report to pass without further inquiry into how the weapons came to be in the possession of the INLA terrorists.

There will also be doubts in many people’s minds today about the series of events leading up to the murder of Billy Wright. I condemn murder, whether by the LVF or by any other paramilitary or terrorist organisation. My thoughts are, of course, with the victims, but Billy Wright’s family are entitled to know the truth of what happened. In particular, his father, David Wright, is entitled to know what happened to his son. I do not believe that the report gives us that.

There are too many coincidences, too many happenstances, too many things that went wrong all at the same time, all of which contributed to the murder. Many of us are left with more questions than answers in our minds today.

I am very sorry that the right hon. Gentleman is not happy with the result of this report, after an investigation by a senior judge and his tribunal with its highly respected panel, and with more than 30,000 pages of evidence having been looked at. Obviously, it is also very regrettable that some of the details have not emerged. How the guns got into H block 6 is still not clear. That highlights one of the sad facts about trying to arrive at a system to look at the past: in some cases we just will not get to those final details. This may be one of those cases. After spending £30 million and following six years of investigation by some of the most experienced lawyers in the western world, we have not got to one of the key details: how the guns were smuggled into the H block. As we look ahead, I am afraid that we are going to have to accept that, in respect of some of these past cases, we simply will never know.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State will address a specific issue that was raised in a local Northern Ireland newspaper this morning. Was there any evidence at all that the RUC or MI5 had prior warning that the INLA intended to murder Billy Wright but failed to take action to prevent the murder? Was there any shred of evidence to support that contention?

No, there was no evidence of a clear plan, but there is strong criticism that certain intelligence reports—particularly one in April—were not passed on and that the systems of transmitting data and intelligence were not good enough.

I thank the Secretary of State for the statement. Does he not feel incredibly short-changed by this £30-million report that has certainly made lawyers extremely wealthy but has done very little to provide us with any more answers to questions than when this entire sorry saga commenced, and does he agree that if we accept his analysis that we will never actually get to the truth in all of this, all we can conclude about this report is that it is a whitewash?

We inherited a series of inquiries commissioned by the previous Government, and as the incoming Government all we can do is face up to them and publish them as swiftly as possible. In respect of this case, the inquiry was set the clear remit of looking into whether the British state colluded. It has run on at considerably more expense and for considerably longer than was originally planned, but we have immediately come forward and presented it to the House in the very narrow window of Parliament sitting for these two weeks in September, and the hon. Gentleman can therefore now read it at length and draw his own conclusions. I think we do have to separate the issue of process from the result, however, and I hope that some people will be reassured by this very detailed investigation of the case.

The Secretary of State clearly outlined the case, and he will understand the dissatisfaction that we Members from Northern Ireland have about it. The right hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward) and my right hon. Friends the Members for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) mentioned one of our concerns: the guns problem. If there were no guns in the prison, there would be nobody dead today. Can you, Secretary of State, assure us today that you will carry out a further investigation to find out how those guns were smuggled in? Is it your intention to do that, or are you just going to drop the whole thing today and forget about it?

May I very gently say to the hon. Gentleman that it is not my intention to do any of the things to which he referred? I am sure, however, that the Secretary of State will volunteer a response.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I think I have just answered it, however. After £30 million and six years, I am not sure what more can be done, or for how much longer we can carry on looking into an individual case. It is very regrettable that the data to enable us to get to every fine detail of the case may not be available, but we also must recognise that 3,268 deaths are being looked at by the Historical Enquiries Team, and there must be some sense of balance. After a certain amount of time and effort has been expended, we have to accept that certain details may never emerge, but I think that an inquiry lasting six years, involving one of the top lawyers in the country and 30,000 pages of evidence, illustrates that an enormous amount of effort has gone into this case.