There was a collective sigh of the relief across the north west yesterday after the Justice Minister signalled that Magilligan Prison would most likely remain open.
Roe Valley Chamber of Commerce had warned that relocating the prison to Maghaberry would cost Limavady’s fragile economy £10m a year.
But the news that Alliance Minister David Ford appeared poised to keep the Co Londonderry jail open received a unanimous welcome.
However, the relief was tempered by a sense of caution as no final decision on the future of the site has yet to be taken.
Limavady Mayor Cathal McLaughlin, who lives in Magilligan, said that Mr Ford’s comments would provide some hope to those who were dependent on the facility for their livelihood.
“I think it will be brilliant news for local jobs and local businesses if it does now stay open” the Sinn Fein councillor said.
“It will be great for the local economy, especially coming on the back of the announcement by the Department of Agriculture that it is relocating in this area.
“With the minister coming out and saying what he has said it now looks positive. This could well keep the local economy going here.
“Even at a parish level, our local priest is the chaplain for Magilligan and Magilligan being there keeps him in our parish.”
There had been widespread fears over recommendations that the prison might be shut down within six years, leading to a loss of many jobs and adding to the woes of the local economy.
East Londonderry DUP MLA George Robinson gave a cautious welcome to the Justice Minister’s suggestion that closure was no longer the preferred option.
“The minister’s acknowledgement that a ‘convincing case might be made’ for the prisons retention — this is not a promise that this will happen,” he said.
“It is essential that everyone must keep pushing home the point that the loss of the prison would be devastating to the economy of the North West in general and Limavady and Coleraine in particular.”
The UUP’s Justice spokesman Tom Elliott MLA added: “When I questioned the minister on whether the retention of Magilligan would result in a new build or reconfiguration of the current site he indicated that it would lead to new builds for some areas of the current Magilligan site.
“This will be a more cost-effective measure than a complete new build at another location, so the retention of Magilligan is good news all round, especially for the economy in the surrounding area.”
Limavady UUP councillor Edwin Stevenson added: “The closure of Magilligan would see around £10m being lost from the local economy in Limavady and surrounding towns. This would have horrendous consequences.
“There are just over 400 jobs which are directly dependent on Magilligan, so news that the Justice Minister appears to be indicating that its fate is not yet sealed will be welcome to those who had been left in a precarious position.”
David Ford's case for retaining prison
By Noel McAdam
HMP Magilligan has been granted a stay of execution and now looks set to remain open — despite a review which concluded it should shut.
Justice Minister David Ford signalled a U-turn which could see the jail being retained in the forseeable future.
The Alliance leader told the Assembly he is inclined to retain a prison on a site in the north west where 350 prison officers work.
While emphasising he had not yet reached a final verdict, Mr Ford said there is a convincing case for retaining the jail, where it would provide a much-needed boost to the north west economy.
His remarks fly in the face of an official report on the province’s prison estate which recommended Magilligan should be “decommissioned” from 2018.
Mr Ford also said Northern Ireland's main high-security jail at Maghaberry would be broken into three mini prisons.