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Thursday, 2 August, 2001, 12:35 GMT 13:35 UK
The trouble with plastic bullets
A mural depicting those killed by plastic bullets in Northern Ireland
Campaign: A major issue among nationalists
The proposed political package to end the deadlock in Northern Ireland includes further changes in policing. One of the most controversial aspects remains the use of plastic baton rounds - better known as plastic bullets.

On 29 August 1975 10-year-old Stephen Geddis became the first and the youngest person to die after being hit by a plastic bullet in Belfast.

While soldiers said they had fired at stone-throwing children in a nationalist area, the government eventually paid compensation to the family.

A plastic baton round recovered from a street in Belfast
Baton rounds were designed to be non-lethal
It was not to be the last time that baton rounds, in use for almost 30 years, would claim a life.

Fourteen people have died after being hit by the PVC tube-shaped rounds.

Seven of the dead were children, including a 12-year-old girl. The last to die was 15-year-old Seamus Duffy in 1989. Three other people died between 1972 and 1973 after being hit by the plastic baton round's predecessor, the rubber bullet.

According to the findings of many inquiries, inquests and court proceedings, only four of those killed had been found to be involved in disorder.

Some 1m in compensation has been paid out but no member of the security forces has been convicted of offences linked to the deaths.

Baton at a distance

Plastic baton rounds are fired at approximately 160mph from at least 20 metres away and are designed to deliver a comparable blow as that from a policeman's handheld baton.

Plastic baton rounds
Introduced 1973
Replaced rubber bullets
Solid PVC cylinder
Muzzle velocity 160mph
17 deaths since introduction
125,000 fired up to 1998
This, in theory, allows security forces to create a "sterile area" clear of rioting.

But campaigners say that in practice baton rounds have proved to be a lethal weapon used disproportionately against the Catholic community.

"There have been hundreds of people severely injured, paralysed, blinded and permanently disabled," said Clara Reilly of the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets.

"This is a weapon that has, quite simply, traumatised and killed children."

"In Protestant areas, plastic bullets have been the weapon of last resort. In Catholic areas, it's been the weapon of first resort."

Rules of engagement

The RUC denies allegations of sectarianism and says that it follows strict guidelines on their use:

A mural in west Belfast calls for the banning of plastic bullets
Baton round use is sectarian, say nationalists
They should only be used where other methods to restore order have been tried and failed or would be likely to fail.

That the use of plastic bullets is necessary to reduce a serious risk of loss of life, serious injury or substantial and serious damage to property which would endanger life

Officers may only fire with authorisation and they must then file a full report with comments from a superior officer.

But the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) recently criticised the accounting procedures as inadequate.

Safety and predictability

Bob Harker, a former British solider who now campaigns against the rounds, believes that the security forces simply did not realise at first the damage plastic bullets could do.

"During our training you could see that they were simply unstable," he said. "Someone would fire at the target and completely miss.

"We were told they were just these little rubbery things that weren't lethal. You'd see them fired all over the place, soldiers firing them willy-nilly, especially at night."

Mr Harker, who gave his service medal to the mother of one of the children killed by a baton round, asks why the weapon has never been used in rioting elsewhere in the UK.

But the Northern Ireland Office's response is simple: "The government would be delighted if the public order situation improved sufficiently to remove the need to resort to baton rounds."

'Legitimate weapon'

RUC officers defend the baton round as a vital means of defence - and essential for gaining the advantage in dangerous situations.

An RUC officer fires a plastic baton round in a riot situation in Northern Ireland
Rules: RUC says it follows strict guidelines
"If you're facing a crowd who won't go home and are intent on rioting, you have to know that you can defend yourself and the area you are protecting," one officer said.

"That sometimes means that you have no choice but to up the ante - go on the offensive and clear an area so that you can prevent destruction of property and therefore the endangerment of lives.

"You're stuck between the devil and deep blue sea. But what would happen if we weren't there with the equipment? A lot more injuries to our officers."

Brice Dickson, the head of the NIHRC has called on the RUC in recent weeks to no longer deploy baton rounds for crowd control - something that prompted an angry response from RUC Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan.

"We do not use baton rounds for crowd control, nor would we. We direct baton rounds at individuals behaving in a way that brings risk to life.

"I have no doubt that if my officers had not had recourse to plastic baton rounds [in recent weeks] then someone would have been killed."

The future

The Patten Report into policing reform did not call for the immediate banning of plastic bullets - but did recommend an alternative be quickly found.

We do not use baton rounds for crowd control, nor would we. We direct baton rounds at individuals behaving in a way that brings risk to life.

RUC Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan
The government says that it is still researching replacements and one of the expected moves for now is that recruits to the reformed force will not receive baton round training. It has also announced an "intention" to avoid using baton rounds during this phase "except where there is a serious risk of loss of life or serious injury". Campaigners say that is no different to the current regulations.

Meanwhile, the RUC is switching to a new round which it argues is more stable once fired, therefore reducing the risk of serious or life-threatening injury.

Campaigners say its improved accuracy could prove more deadly - and say that the future of baton rounds is an intrinsic part of the peace process.

"There is no place for plastic bullets in a normal society," said Clara Reilly. "We want a police service that we can respect built on respect for human rights.

"If you want to encourage people from the nationalist community to join the new police force then you cannot do it when it is still armed with a weapon that has been used on their own neighbours."

Find out more about the latest moves in the Northern Ireland peace process

Devolution crisis





See also:

01 Jun 01 | N Ireland
18 Jul 01 | N Ireland
18 Jul 01 | N Ireland
07 Apr 01 | N Ireland
31 May 01 | N Ireland
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