Northern Ireland

Quest for truth remains after report into Wright death

A copy of the inquiry report into the death of Billy Wright in December 1997
Image caption A copy of the inquiry report into the killing of Billy Wright in December 1997

BBC Ireland correspondent Mark Simpson examines the implications of the report into the killing of loyalist Billy Wright who was shot dead in 1997 in Northern Ireland's main jail.

"Sorry" is no longer the hardest word to say in Northern Ireland, after three apologies from the government in as many months.

First it was over Bloody Sunday, then over the Claudy bomb and now over the death of Billy Wright.

Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson have all had to admit to the House of Commons that the state got something wrong, albeit before they, themselves, were in power.

The latest apology, over the murder in prison of loyalist paramilitary Billy Wright, was no surprise.

What was significant was just how damning the findings of the public inquiry were about the Maze jail, where Wright and hundreds of other paramilitary prisoners were held.

'Monster'

One sentence from the long report summed up the inquiry's findings.

It said: "By holding anything between 500 and 1,000 of these volatile prisoners in one prison, the Northern Ireland Prison Sevice created a monster, which became iconic in political terms - and well-nigh ungovernable in operational terms."

The lack of governance meant there were no regular head-counts of prisoners, cell-checks or nightly lock-downs. Instead there were snooker tables, colour TVs, paramilitary slogans painted on the walls and a steady supply of smuggled goods.

Alcohol, drugs and phones were not difficult to obtain and according to one ex-prisoner, at one stage an inmate managed to smuggle in a pet puppy.

It may sound like something from the 1970s BBC sit-com Porridge, but inside the Maze, sometimes truth was stranger than fiction.

Much of what is in the Maze report confirms the long-held belief that by the mid-1990s the jail was high security on the outside but not on the inside.

Indeed, historians may no longer be able to refer to the Maze as a 'high security jail' without the use of quotation marks.

What is not in the report is any detail about how the INLA inmates who killed Wright managed to obtain two guns and ammunition.

In spite of five years of work, costing £30m, the inquiry team had no idea how it happened.

"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 (Wright's) INLA murderers," states the report.

In fact, those lines are the final words of the 700-page report.

Some will see that lack of information as reason to believe the £30m could have been much better spent.

Taken with the £200m spent on the Bloody Sunday inquiry, it is clear that investigating the past in Northern Ireland is costing the British government a lot of money, at a time when there is not enough to go around. Little wonder then that ministers keep saying there will not be any more inquiries.

They also must be somewhat tired of having to say 'sorry' so often.

Truth recovery

So how then should they deal with the past controversies and unresolved killings?

A South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission has all but been ruled out. It is felt that Northern Ireland needs its own custom-built process.

However, given the political divisions which continue to exist in Belfast it is difficult - perhaps impossible - to envisage a consensus emerging on what that new process should be.

The longer time goes on, the more difficult any truth recovery project may become. Memories fade and people die.

That was one of the problems which faced those investigating the death of Billy Wright in the Maze.

Indeed, time has even caught up with the jail itself.

Most of it has now been demolished.