Deadline to end jail segregation in Northern Ireland is dismissed as threat remains
The current severe threat against prison officers must not be underestimated, Justice Minister Claire Sugden has warned.
More than seven months after the death of Adrian Ismay, jail staff remain under threat daily, she told the Assembly yesterday.
Mr Ismay, who trained staff at the high-security Maghaberry prison, died 11 days after a bomb exploded underneath his van in east Belfast on March 4.
He was the first victim since November 2012 when David Black was ambushed as he drove along the M1 motorway near Portadown on his way to work at Maghaberry. Both men were aged 52.
Ms Sugden's comments came as MLAs debated an Ulster Unionist motion setting out a nine-year plan to end the segregation of the small number of paramilitary prisoners being held at Maghaberry.
The Justice Minister said: "Maybe it will happen in nine years, but it needs to happen in a more peaceful and safer Northern Ireland.
"We must not underestimate the current severe threat that has claimed the lives of two prison officers and threatens officers daily. However, the focus needs to be on the right solution in the safest environment for prison officers and wider society.
"I cannot support a motion that focuses on a timeframe rather than on the right solution."
She also insisted there would be no return to a "Maze-like" control of areas of the prison by paramilitaries.
The UUP motion argued a decision by the government in 2003 to segregate loyalist and republican prisoners had been "flawed" and the prison should "gradually revert back to its integrationist policy".
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said the government had gone back to a segregated system against the recommendations of the Prison Officers' Association, the Prison Governors Association and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs.
He said the Steele report commissioned by the government had warned if a separated regime was denied it could lead to an escalation in the inmates' campaign of attacks on prison officers.
"Here we have, yet again, terrorists holding a gun to the head of Northern Ireland society, saying, 'Do as we say, or we will return to violence'," he added.
Sinn Fein proposed an amendment urging Ms Sugden to work jointly with the planned independent review to examine the operation of the separated regime, which was passed by 50 votes to 15.
Sinn Fein's Declan Kearney argued: "Placing responsibility for prisons under the control of the local Executive since 2008 has played an important role in promoting penal reform here.
"However, while prison reform is ongoing, it is neither completed nor comprehensive.
"That applies especially to Maghaberry prison. Comprehensive prison reform should be at the heart of the political and policy framework for the Department of Justice and the Assembly. Today's UUP motion completely misses the context and the necessary reform agenda."
The DUP's Paul Frew said paramilitaries are engaged in "psychological warfare" against prison officers in Maghaberry jail - but insisted that neither republicans or loyalists are in control of their respective wings at the jail.
Last year new figures revealed there had been 600 assaults by inmates on other inmates over a five-year period at the province's largest jail, which holds around 1,000 prisoners ranging from people on remand and serving short sentences to life-sentence prisoners, as well as the loyalist and republican paramilitary groups.