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Murder of jailed loyalist 'was due to negligence, not collusion'

An official inquiry into the murder of a loyalist assassin inside a top-security prison yesterday ruled out state collusion in his death, blaming instead negligence by police and the prison authorities.

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Paterson, said he was sincerely sorry that "serious and profound failings in the system" had facilitated the murder of the Protestant paramilitary leader Billy Wright by members of the Irish National Liberation Army in 1997.

Minimal criticism was voiced of the Government or MI5, with the police and prison service bearing the brunt of the report's condemnation.

Wright, who was reputedly responsible for a dozen or more murders of Catholics during a career which earned him the nickname of "King Rat", was shot dead by three INLA members.

Reaction to the report was largely muted, in contrast to the widespread welcome given to the recent report into Bloody Sunday. Instead, both republicans and Unionists criticised the 700-page document, which was delivered after a five-year inquiry costing £30m.

The Democratic Unionist Party, which heads the devolved administration in Belfast, said the facts would lead many to conclude that the chain of events which led up to the killing "stretches coincidence to breaking point". Sinn Fein also voiced suspicions, though from a different perspective, saying the report failed to examine Wright's relationships with senior Unionist politicians. A Sinn Fein spokesman, John O'Dowd, declared: "It is our firm view that Wright and others were controlled, directed and manipulated by the British state."

The view of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party was that the dangers associated with the Maze "cannot excuse the litany of negligence that the inquiry found, including both omissions and wrongful acts which facilitated the murder."

Wright's father, David, who has for years campaigned for information about his son's death, said it was appalling that police had not passed on intelligence concerning threats against him. This "constituted dreadful acts of omission that facilitated his death," he added.

The report said: "The panel's conclusion is that the police failure to communicate the intelligence was a wrongful omission which facilitated the death of Billy Wright in a way that was negligent rather than intentional."

It added that the shooting had been facilitated, though not deliberately, by factors such as a prison service failure to address recognised management problems. It pointed out that guns had been smuggled in, by means still unknown, while an internal fence had been cut and that measures had not been taken to seal off an insecure roof over which the gunmen had scrambled.

In addition, Wright's name had been called over a tannoy system, which alerted the INLA that he would be placed in a van, used for visits, which would be accessible to them.

The report concluded that such "wrongful acts or omissions facilitated indirectly the murder of Billy Wright".

On the question of state collusion it said that, while this had been established by other reports into other incidents, "we must proceed on the evidence we heard and weighed". Criticism of MI5 was confined to an observation that it was "most unfortunate" that a threat to Wright was not passed on by MI5 to the then security minister.

The reactions demonstrated that, unlike the Bloody Sunday inquiry, this report has not dispelled the suspicions of undercover security force behaviour which run deep in Northern Ireland.

In one sense the incident is part of Troubles history, given that both Wright's organisation and the group which killed him are now defunct. The Maze Prison has long since closed, and plans are under way to develop the site to attract commerce and tourism.

Killers: The three INLA men convicted of Wright's murder

Christopher 'Crip' McWilliams

The man who actually shot Billy Wright was serving a life sentence for the murder of a doorman who refused him entry to a Belfast pub. His teenage brother had years earlier been shot dead by the Army. McWilliams was released from prison and died in 2008.

John Kennaway

He had taken part, with McWilliams, in a previous incident which is thought to have been an attempt to kill Wright. He was in prison for the attempted murder of a Northern Ireland Conservative politician. He was released from prison but later recalled. In 2007 he was found dead in his cell.

John Glennon

Glennon is the only one of the INLA killers still alive. With McWilliams and Kennaway he was convicted, but served only two years before being released under the Good Friday Agreement.