Government lawyers to study Billy Wright death report

Michael McHugh,Press Association
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:33

Government lawyers are to study a report into the prison death of loyalist Billy Wright.

They are checking that Lord Ranald MacLean's £30 million investigation into alleged security lapses will not put the lives of individuals at risk when it is published within a few months.

Lord MacLean probed the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) leader's murder by republicans in the high-security Maze prison near Belfast in 1997. Five witnesses at the inquiry won a legal battle for anonymity.

Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson said: "I need to take steps to satisfy myself that the publication of the report will not breach Article 2 of the Convention (of Human Rights) by putting the lives or safety of individuals at risk."

He added: "I also have a duty to satisfy myself that publication will not put national security at risk, for example by disclosing details of sources of confidential information."

Wright, 37, was gunned down by republican splinter group the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) inmates as he sat in a prison van in December 1997 before a visit.

Inquiry hearings ran from January 2008 to July 2009 and the panel's report is expected to be published within months. It cost £29.7 million to the end of May this year.

The five witnesses granted anonymity included former police special branch officers because identification could potentially reduce the effectiveness of the special branch as a whole and could create a risk to witnesses and others.

With terms of reference announced in November 2004 the Wright inquiry was one of three established to probe whether security force collusion surrounded controversial deaths. The others included murdered Catholic solicitor Rosemary Nelson and Robert Hamill who was kicked to death in Portadown, Co Armagh, while police were nearby.

Last month Lord Mark Saville's Bloody Sunday report into the death of 14 civil rights protesters shot dead by soldiers was published after the government took time to consider similar national security implications.

Questions considered by the Wright panel included:

:: The decision to house Wright and other LVF members in the same H Block as the INLA;

:: The security lapses which allowed the INLA to smuggle in two guns;

:: The standing down of a prison officer from the watchtower overlooking H Block 6 on the morning of the killing;

:: The fact that a vital CCTV camera was not working;

:: The lapses which allowed a wire fence to be cut by the INLA men.

Mr Paterson added he had asked a team of officials to begin checking the MacLean report.

"I have established a small team of officials and legal advisors to assist me in carrying out this necessary exercise," he said.

"The team will be led by the Northern Ireland Office's principal legal advisor but will need to include members drawn from the Ministry of Defence, security service and Police Service of Northern Ireland, who are familiar with the sensitive material provided to the Inquiry panel but they will be granted access to the report under strict terms of confidentiality and for the sole purpose of carrying out the necessary checks and they will report directly to me alone."

Lord MacLean has agreed that this team can carry out the checks on the Inquiry's premises while the report remains in his custody before it is formally submitted to the Northern Ireland Secretary.

Representatives of the families may enjoy advance sight before the report is published to parliament, Mr Paterson said.

He added he wanted to publish the report in its entirety.

"Should any concerns about the safety of any individual arise my first course of action would be to consider whether these can be addressed through alternative means," he said.

"Were I to reach this conclusion, on advice, that a redaction to the text might be necessary, I would consult Lord MacLean.

"In the very unlikely event that any redaction was deemed necessary, my intention would be to make this clear on the face of the report."

He added: "I believe that these checks are absolutely necessary in order to meet the legal obligations on me."