Billy Wright Inquiry
On 27 December 1997, Billy Wright, leader of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), was killed by the Irish Nationalist Liberation Army (INLA). He was murdered as he sat in a prison van at Long Kesh/Maze Prison, waiting to be transferred from the H Blocks to the visitor area.
This Inquiry was initially established under Section 7 of the Prisons Act (Northern Ireland) 1953. However, on 23rd November 2005 the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Rt Hon Peter Hain MP, converted the Inquiry so that it be held under the Inquiries Act 2005.
Its terms of reference were:
“To inquire into the death of Billy Wright with a view to determining whether any wrongful act or omission by or within the prison authorities or other state agencies facilitated his death, or whether attempts were made to do so; whether any such act or omission was intentional or negligent; and to make recommendations.”
The Inquiry Panel members were The Rt Hon Lord MacLean, a retired Appellate judge from Scotland (Chairman), Professor Andrew Coyle CMG, Professor of Prison Studies in the School of Law, King’s College, University of London and the Rt Rev John Oliver, former Bishop of Hereford.
The full public hearings were held at Banbridge Court House, Victoria Street, County Down. They commenced on 30 May 2007 and the hearings concluded after 156 days on 2 July 2009.
The Billy Wright Inquiry delivered its report on 14 September 2010. CAJ published the following commentary in response:
The Billy Wright Inquiry did not adopt the same definition of collusion as that used by Judge Cory; attempts to adopt this definition were defended in the body of this report.
The Inquiry stated that although specific reference was not made to collusion in its terms of reference, these terms “would amply cover the situation ... without having to resort to the words ‘collusion’ or ‘collusive.’” In its report, the Inquiry commented they “had at the forefront of our minds our understanding of collusion and the possibility that individuals within state agencies behaved collusively or committed collusive acts which could be said to have facilitated Billy Wright’s death.” The Inquiry, though, was never “persuaded that in any instance there was evidence of collusive acts or collusive conduct.”
Though initially established under the Prisons (Northern Ireland) Act 1953, the Inquiry was converted to one under the Inquiries Act 2005. This was met with resistance by Billy Wright’s family. A judicial review seeking to quash this decision was successful before the High Court on 21 December 2006 but was reversed by the Court of Appeal on 28 June 2007. Challenges were also made to the Inquiry’s terms of reference, the Chairman’s ruling on the questioning of witnesses and the posting of transcripts on its website.
The Inquiry took five years to fulfil its remit due to the complexity of the subject matter, large volume of material, and the difficulties in recovering and considering material. Having detailed the historical and political landscape, the Inquiry focused on the role of the NIPS, RUC, security service and army. In considering the part of the NIPS, the Inquiry concluded that its failure to operate a proper system of prisoner classification in the Maze made it very difficult to exercise appropriate supervision of those prisoners who required the highest level of staff supervision. They specifically criticised the failure to classify Christopher McWilliams and John Kenneway as top risk prisoners after they held a prison officer hostage at gunpoint in 1997.
Among its conclusions, the Inquiry also noted that the failure to strengthen roof defences in H Block 6 and the failure to ensure that the exercise yards were secured and checked each night, the failure of the NIPS to provide staff with clear operational instructions for daily practice, the failure on the part of the NIPS and its Chief Executive to deal with recognised management problems in the Maze and the failure to seek risk assessments about republican threats to Billy Wright and the return of the LVF to H6, all constituted wrongful omissions on their part which facilitated Billy Wright’s death.
The Inquiry was also critical of the failure to implement many of the recommendations of the Steele Report which followed the discovery of a tunnel in the Maze; lack of implementation constituted a wrongful omission which facilitated the murder of Billy Wright. In its recommendations, the Inquiry highlighted the need for a Patten style process to “pave the way for radical change in the way that the NIPS is managed.” It is noteworthy that 6 days of hearing were required to address the failure of the Prison Service to provide crucial documentary evidence. The Billy Wright Inquiry noted that a large number of documents had been destroyed before the start of the inquiry though “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.” It stated that the withholding of material “cost the Inquiry several months” delay in its work.
It also noted that the apparent lack of co-operation between Special Branch and CID was highlighted “reflecting a culture of secrecy and confidentiality which was endemic.” The Inquiry criticised the PSNI’s lack of adequate and effective systems for information management, dissemination and retention and also noted that in certain cases there was a suspicion that this “amounted to deliberate malpractice which involved the destruction of audit trails and the concealment of evidence.” It criticised the RUC’s failure to take any action over the critical threat of April 1997 and noted that its failure to communicate intelligence was a wrongful omission which facilitated Billy Wright’s death. The Inquiry rejected the allegation of collusion levied against the Security Service.
Full details about the Inquiry can be found at: www.billywrightinquiry.org