22 February 2006

Hain turned down Wright letters bid

Belfast Telegraph

Court forced Secretary of State to release documents

By Chris Thornton
21 February 2006

Peter Hain refused to release private letters he exchanged with the chairman of the Billy Wright Inquiry before court rules forced him to, the Belfast Telegraph has learned.

The Secretary of State turned down a Freedom of Information request for the letters made by David Wright, the murdered LVF leader's father, last year.

Last week, a judge decided that Mr Hain may have been wrong to keep the letters from Mr Wright, even before the Freedom of Information request - a point that will be decided at a full hearing in April.

The inquiry, which is examining collusion around Billy Wright's 1997 murder inside the Maze Prison, is on hold until the judicial review is decided.

The case is likely to have an impact on the legal basis for an inquiry into Pat Finucane's murder as well.

The High Court in Belfast heard last week that inquiry chairman Lord MacLean and Mr Hain had exchanged letters about the legal background to the inquiry - described in court as "private correspondence" - before Lord MacLean asked for controversial legislation to be applied to the case.

David Wright's lawyers claim there was a link between the private letters and the decision to change the terms for the inquiry - a decision that gave Mr Hain greater secrecy powers.

Mr Wright is challenging Mr Hain's decision to hold hearings under the Inquiries Act.

Mr Wright's lawyers say that gives "the Government extensive powers to interfere with the inquiry".

A number of judges from around the world have objected to the legislation, which is also scheduled to be used in the Finucane case.

Last week, Mr Wright's lawyers argued in the High Court that the private letters had a bearing on the decision to change the Wright Inquiry's terms.

Before filing for a judicial review of Mr Hain's decision, Mr Wright asked for details of all contact between the Secretary of State and Lord MacLean.

The Northern Ireland Office refused, saying the release of the papers could inhibit the conduct of the inquiry. "There is a convention of confidentiality when inquiry chairmen are writing to ministers," an NIO spokesman said.

However, the Government's legal team was forced to disclose the letters when Lord MacLean referred to them in an affidavit. The exchange of letters began days after Mr Hain was appointed to the NIO last May.

The court heard last week that his predecessor as Secretary of State, Paul Murphy, had told David Wright that the Inquiries Act would not applied to his son's case.

But Mr Hain reversed that at Lord MacLean's request.

The judge asked for the controversial legislation to be used in the Wright case because he said it would give the tribunal better access to material from the NIO and MI5.

An NIO spokesman said Mr Hain is "perfectly happy" that the letters were eventually released, stating: "We are happy to have the content disclosed. This is essentially a procedural point."

The Billy Wright Inquiry was originally set up under the Prisons Act, but Mr Hain made the switch to the Inquiries Act late last year.

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