Death in Service of Prison Officer Adrian Ismay

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 8:45 pm on 15th March 2016.

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Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance 8:45 pm, 15th March 2016

Mr Speaker, I start by thanking you for agreeing to allow me to make the statement at short notice. It is with the deepest sorrow that I speak to Members today following the death of serving prison officer, Adrian Ismay. I know that I speak for everyone in the Assembly when I say that our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, his daughters and the wider family circle, as well as his colleagues and friends.

Adrian's death has come as a great shock to all of us. He was a husband, father and grandfather, and it is in his family home that the pain of the loss will be felt most. He was also hugely respected by his friends and colleagues in the Northern Ireland Prison Service, where he gave over 28 years' service. In addition to his dedicated work as a prison officer, Adrian was actively involved in the community as a trainer in search and rescue and first aid. A remarkable example of his dedication to the Prison Service was shown when he attended a passing-out ceremony for new recruits last Friday, just one week after he had been attacked.

That courage could not be more different from the cowardice of those responsible for planting a bomb under his van in the darkness of night. Whilst the police and other agencies are working to establish the exact cause of Adrian's death, his bravery is in stark contrast to those who carried out this appalling attack. Those behind this callous attack once again showed an utter disregard for human life, not only for the life of someone who served the community but for the lives of his family and others living in the area. I know that I speak for all Members when I condemn the actions of those responsible for this heinous attack and say that I fully support the police in their investigation.

Those involved in carrying out this misguided attack and those who planned it should see the futility of their actions. They go against the democratic principles that the vast majority of people in this society support. I know that the police are looking for every piece of evidence to bring the perpetrators to justice, and I ask anyone with information to contact the police.

Adrian Ismay served the entire community. Whoever was behind this has nothing to offer anyone in Northern Ireland. Today, the Assembly and the justice family stand side by side, united in our sympathy for Adrian's family and in solidarity against those who want to drag this community back.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

I say this for guidance, because we have a significant list. Obviously, Members can ask a question of the Minister on the statement. If, in fact, they want to express their own wishes and it is not a question, that might facilitate me to bring more Members into the discussion. However, people are entitled to ask a question of the Minister if they so wish.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

This is not the way in which any of us would have wanted to end the Assembly mandate. The targeting of Adrian Ismay at the beginning of this month demonstrates that, despite the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland over the past decade, there are still those in our society who will target a husband and father simply because of the uniform that he wears to work. There is nothing noble or brave about skulking around in the shadows and bringing death and destruction to communities that just want to get on with their lives. The only thing that those responsible for targeting Mr Ismay will achieve is to unite the law-abiding community in its determination and resolve to stand up to terrorism and work for a brighter future, rather than one full of the darkness of the past. My thoughts this evening are with the Ismay family and Adrian's colleagues across the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

Reports came out of Maghaberry prison this afternoon that dissident republicans were celebrating and smoking cigars at the news that broke this morning. Not only will that appal most normal people, but it reflects the fact that prison officers work in extremely difficult circumstances, both in the prison and outside it. Can the Minister assure us that he will continue to work with the Prison Service and the Police Service of Northern Ireland to ensure that there is adequate protection for those who wear a uniform to protect the law-abiding citizens of Northern Ireland?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I indicated to the House at Question Time this week that the director general of the Prison Service had asked for a security assessment of the threat against prison officers. I have no doubt that that will be completed as speedily as can be and that the Prison Service, in conjunction with the Police Service, will do all that it can to protect Prison Service staff.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, Like the Chair, I think that it is sad that this is the last piece of business for this Assembly. Last week, in a matter of the day, most of us expressed the hope that Adrian Ismay would make a full recovery and extended good wishes to him. Indeed, yesterday, the Minister, in his contribution on the Floor, told us that he had made a full recovery and that, while certainly not back at his work, he was able to attend a passing-out ceremony at Hydebank.

Tonight, it is right and proper that we send our condolences to his family, his circle of friends and his colleagues. It is also appropriate that we send a very clear message to those who carry out these types of incidents, now including an attack in which a person has died, that they have no mandate and little or no support. Does the Minister agree that the best way to send that message is to remain united and firm in our approach to opposing those people?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I certainly agree that we need united condemnation from the Assembly and a united community response to those who seek to divide us and drag us back.

Photo of Fearghal McKinney Fearghal McKinney Social Democratic and Labour Party

This death is a huge blow to all of us who have stood against those with such murderous intent. My thoughts and the thoughts of all in the SDLP are with Adrian's family and friends at this difficult time. Today, we are reminded once again that, despite our differences, we are one society and one people, united and indivisible in the face of terror. We stand as democrats against such terror. They will not succeed.

I simply ask the Minister to directly convey to Adrian's family and friends our thoughts this evening.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I expect to see the family during the day tomorrow. I will convey the wishes that are being expressed around the House, which I have no doubt will continue unanimously, when I meet the family.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I join the Minister and the entire House in expressing profound sadness at the death earlier today of prison officer Mr Adrian Ismay. I express sympathy to his wife, his family and his colleagues on his tragic and untimely death.

It is more than a little ironic that the final plenary of the mandate has been overshadowed by events outside the House today. Regardless of the House, the lives of the Ismay family have been changed utterly and for ever. Those responsible for the planting of the under-vehicle device 11 days ago bear a very heavy responsibility for the death of Mr Ismay.

I am mindful that this is an occasion to express our heartfelt sympathy to his wife and family and not to engage in political discourse. However, will the Minister join me in expressing utter contempt for the reported celebrations by dissident republican prisoners in Maghaberry prison following news of the death of prison officer Ismay? Will he agree with me that such actions are entirely despicable?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I am aware of reports in the media about supposed celebrations in Roe House in Maghaberry. I am not aware of the veracity of those allegations, but I entirely agree with Mr Kennedy that, if there is any truth in them, it is utterly despicable behaviour.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I, too, join the Minister in condemning the acts of last week and expressing sympathy to the Ismay family. Does he agree that the vile and pathetic excuses for humanity who carried out this atrocity and, sadly, others have nothing to offer our society and that the Assembly should be seen as standing firm tonight against those individuals?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I agree entirely with that. I have said before and repeat tonight that it appears that some people are more wedded to some form of struggle than to any possible outcome. They must be condemned from every quarter. The united response in the House is being replicated amongst the vast, overwhelming majority of our people not just in Northern Ireland but across the border and across the water, judging from the responses that I saw this morning. That is the response that we need, and we need that carried through into the practical action of assistance to the police and acknowledgement of the difficult task that the police officers and prison officers of this society carry out.

Photo of Sammy Douglas Sammy Douglas DUP

I am a DUP Member for East Belfast, and this man was a neighbour of mine in many ways and lived a few streets away. We are all deeply saddened by the death of prison officer Adrian Ismay and wish to express our sincere and heartfelt condolences to his family. Let us not mince our words: will the Minister support me when I say that this attack on prison officer Ismay was a deplorable and senseless act of terror?

Yesterday in the Senate Chamber, we marked European victims of terrorism remembrance day by hearing from three victims of terror from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain — three victims whose lives had been shattered by bombs and bullets. One of the three speakers at the event was Austin Stack, whose father, Brian, was shot and fatally wounded in Dublin in 1983 by terrorists while serving as chief prison officer in Portlaoise jail. It was a powerful and moving speech, but the grief and loss were still evident all these years later. Yesterday, I was thinking, "That was in the past. I hope to God that we have put those days behind us". Yet we hear today of this tragic death and of another family facing uncertainty. Does the Minister agree that all of us in the Chamber need to redouble our efforts, through what we say and do, to marginalise and eradicate those who want to bring us back to the past?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Of course I agree with the sentiments that Mr Douglas expresses. He referred to the murder of Mr Stack some years ago in the Republic. Notably, in recent years, when I have attended the Northern Ireland Prison Service memorial service on the Friday before Remembrance Sunday, there has been a representation of uniformed officers of the Irish Prison Service, wearing poppies with shamrocks to show their solidarity on a cross-border basis. That is the message that needs to go out: unity within Northern Ireland and unity across the island against all those who would seek to divide us. That must be followed by a determination to overcome the divisions that exist and that certain people continue to play on.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

There is, indeed, a dark shadow over the Assembly as we prepare for the elections. The attack on Adrian Ismay was not just an attack on a prison officer; it was an attack on the Assembly, it was an attack on the political process and it was an attack on non-violence and peaceful politics. The only response that we as an Assembly can give is to come together in solidarity to support Mr Ismay's family in their terrible and tragic loss. I ask the Minister to convey that to the family.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I will do so.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

I join Members in expressing my deepest and heartfelt sympathies for Mr Ismay's family, which I ask the Minister to convey to the family. Does the Minister feel that it is appropriate or necessary to make representations to the British Government for additional resources to help the PSNI to apprehend the despicable individuals behind this cowardly attack and to counter any further attacks by these individuals, who have nothing to offer our society?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I indicate to Mr Allen, as to others, that the issue of appropriate resources for the justice system — in particular, for the work of the Police Service — is kept continually under review, and I have no doubt that it will feature in discussions that I will have with the Secretary of State in the immediate future.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

It is with deep sadness that I rise to speak on one of the last things to be discussed in the House: the death of Adrian Ismay.

Let us not beat about the bush: he was murdered by terrorists in Northern Ireland. We hoped that that had been buried in the past, in the history of not only Northern Ireland but Ireland as a whole.

Unfortunately, I speak as one who has a little understanding of what that family is going through. The same knock came to my family's door, and it is horrendous. I feel for that family, and my thoughts and prayers are with the family circle at this time. What that family is going through is almost unbearable and unthinkable.

It is a reminder to all of us in the House that we signed up for a peaceful alternative for Northern Ireland and that we need to redouble our efforts to secure that peaceful future. We need to support those in our police force who, unfortunately, have to deal with this daily. It is concerning to hear that six other attempts were thwarted before, unfortunately, these evil people succeeded in this case. Minister, my question to you is this: can you assure the House that you will give the Chief Constable all the resources necessary to try to thwart those who, unfortunately, want to drag us back to the past?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance 9:00 pm, 15th March 2016

Members will appreciate that I cannot promise to give "all the resources necessary", in Mr Craig's phraseology, to the Chief Constable. We are bound by various restrictions. In response to Mr Allen, I said that I will look at the issue of resources and appropriate support for the Police Service in discussions with the Secretary of State in the coming weeks.

Mr Craig also made a very significant point, and it is one that we should remember: this was not just an attack on democracy, on the peace process in Northern Ireland and on an individual prison officer and his colleagues; it will also have raised major concerns with those who suffered in the past. We should, perhaps, also remember them tonight as we remember the Ismay family.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I also extend my deepest sympathy to the family of Adrian Ismay. I think of my family at this time, and my heart breaks for Adrian's family. They will be in my most sincere thoughts and prayers. Does the Minister agree that the bravery and courage of Adrian and his colleagues stand in stark contrast to the cowardice of the terrorists behind this heinous attack? May I seek an assurance that he will work to do all that he can to provide Adrian's family and colleagues with all possible support as they stand against violence and for peace and democracy for everyone in our community?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Support for Prison Service staff and their families in general is being addressed by the director general. I am also well aware of the direct support provided by representatives of the Prison Service Central Benevolent Fund to the Ismay family over the 11 days since the incident occurred, and particularly today. That support needs to be followed through in a response from the community that, first, provides to the Police Service practical information that can help to catch the perpetrators, and, secondly, tells those who wear the uniform of a prison officer or a police officer that they do so on behalf of everyone and are respected for the work that they do by all in society, except the tiny number who carry out deeds like this.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Like everybody else, we are shocked and saddened by this turn of events. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the Ismay family. The Prison Service is, pretty much, a family. Prison officers go into a prison, carry out their duties and stick by one another. Mr Ivor Dunne was at the Committee not very long ago — within the last six weeks — highlighting how dangerous the situation was for prison officers. Sadly, Mr Dunne's words have come to pass. I have a question for the Minister. When will the Department, the director general and the head of the Prison Service start listening to the people in the Prison Service? I think that ignoring the views being expressed by those people is highly dangerous. We need to listen to the intelligence coming from them and to pay attention and respond to them, not pay lip-service to these situations.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I do not believe that anybody in the leadership of the Prison Service is merely paying lip-service to the concerns that have been expressed. I have already indicated that an updated security assessment has been sought from the director general. Measures have been provided to ensure protection for prison officers and their homes. However, the sad reality is that, in circumstances where a small number of people are seeking to carry out attacks on police and prison officers, whether on or off duty, unless people are entirely vigilant all the time and the community provides the information that is required, we cannot be certain that we will not see similar incidents in the future.

The important thing is that we see a united response carried through into full support for the Police Service in its difficult task of protecting the community in general. At the same time, we should recognise the good work being done by prison staff in the difficult task of changing the culture of prisons for the vast majority of prisoners, while still dealing with the small numbers who pose significant threats, including those posed by their colleagues outside.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

Thank you, Minister and Members. That concludes questions on the statement.

Adjourned at 9.07 pm.