Minister apologises over Loyalist's prison murder

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The Independent Online

The Government apologised today for failings in Northern Ireland's prison service that "facilitated" the 1997 murder of loyalist Billy Wright inside the Maze Prison.

Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson said a £30 million official inquiry had found there was no evidence of "state collusion".

But he said the prison service was guilty of "serious and profound failures".

In a statement to the Commons, Mr Paterson said: "His murder in a high-security prison should never have happened. It was wrong and I'm sincerely sorry that failings in the system facilitated his murder."

He told MPs: "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: '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."

Mr Paterson said the panel found that the decision to locate Wright and the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) to H Block 6 in April 1997 alongside the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) prisoners was a "wrongful act that directly facilitated his murder".

Wright, from Portadown, Co Armagh, leader of the LVF and allegedly linked to up to 20 murders of mostly innocent Catholics, was sitting in the back of a prison van waiting to be taken to meet his visiting girlfriend when he was shot seven times.

Mr Paterson told MPs: "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."

He added: "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 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."

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Shaun Woodward said he shared Mr Paterson's "expression of sorrow for the events and the failings that happened".

Mr Woodward said the panel had concluded that "no explanation emerged in the evidence as to how two firearms were introduced into the prison and put into the hands of his INLA murderers".

He told Mr Paterson: "The absence of an explanation is extremely serious. Further, it potentially has implications for current security policy in Maghaberry.

"Are you satisfied that all the lessons on security in prisons have been learned, especially given the events of the last 12 months?"