Protest to go ahead despite talk of a reprieve for HMP Magilligan

A general view of Magilligan Prison, Co Londonderry, Northern Ireland
A general view of Magilligan Prison, Co Londonderry, Northern Ireland

SPECULATION that Magilligan Prison is set to remain open has been building this week, but the Prison Officers Association are still preparing to take a petition and protest rally to Stormont on Monday.

Reports that the Prison is to remain open have surfaced this week. However, a spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Prison Service has said that no decision has yet been made, although the spokesperson added that the Justice Minister will be making a statement about the ‘prison estate strategy’ to the Assembly later this month.

The man responsible for any decision on the future of Magilligan, Justice Minister David Ford, spoke on the issue at Stormont earlier this week. He said: “If I am convinced that locating a prison in the north-west is indeed best for Northern Ireland where rehabilitating offenders, reducing offending and protecting the public are concerned, that will be reflected in my final decision on the future of Magilligan prison.”

East Londonderry’s local MP, Gregory Campbell, warned that no-one would be “counting any chickens”, but did add that the Minister may be “on the cusp of a re-think.” He has spoken out strongly in opposition to closing HMP Magilligan in the past, saying that if all prisons are located in the Greater Belfast area the rest of Northern Ireland would be left out. “It is not called the Greater Belfast Prison Service”, he said at a recent public meeting in Limavady.

Speaking to the Sentinel last night about the recent speculation that the prison was to remain open, he said: “Nobody is going to count any chickens. We have been through this before when we told this five years ago and after a hard battle was fought we were successful in keeping the prison.

“It is very clear from the comments of the Minister in recent days that he is on the cusp of a re-think. Hopefully the £10 million will not be lost to the local economy through the loss of those 400 jobs. Let’s just keep the pressure up.”

Magilligan Prison is considered vital to the economy of Limavady, with over 400 people employed there. The Roe Valley Chamber of Commerce estimate a loss of £10 million per annum if the prison is to be shut down and offenders re-located to the Greater Belfast area.

Prison Officers are to hold a rally in opposition to the closure of Magilligan at Stormont on Monday (November 19), where a petition will be presented to the Justice Minister.

Magilligan has been considered for closure since the Prison Review Team recommended a new facility be constructed nearer to the Greater Belfast area. The Department of Justice drew up proposals on the basis of those recommendations. Public consultations have since been held on the issue, including a public meeting in Limavady.

The Justice Minister David Ford told the Sentinel at that meeting that it was “absolutely not a foregone conclusion” that the prison is to close.

Speaking at Stormont this week, he added: “I recognise that, in coming to a decision on the future of Magilligan, we cannot ignore the impact that its closure would have on the local economy. At this stage, the economic impact of either having a prison there or moving it elsewhere has not been quantified. That is why I have made it clear that any decision to proceed with decommissioning Magilligan would be the subject of a full economic appraisal. However, Magilligan prison’s future cannot be based on one issue alone.”

Minister Ford recently met with local representatives from areas such as Limavady and Coleraine, where a large number of HMP Magilligan employees reside. UUP Councillor Edwin Stevenson, who is also strongly opposed to the closure of Magilligan, said: “When we met with the Minister the impression I was getting from him was that he thought it should be closed.”

A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Prison Service told the Sentinel: “The Prison Service has undertaken a comprehensive consultation on the entire prison estate and a key component of this relates to the future of Magilligan Prison. The Minister is aware of the many strengths of the prison and is equally aware of the challenges presented by its geographic location. He has been impressed by the quality and level of engagement by stakeholders, which has been insightful and has at times challenged current thinking.

“He will make an oral statement to the Assembly later this month on his initial thinking in on the estate strategy and will make a final decision early in 2013.”