CAMPAIGNING BY THE Irish government to stop the RUC using rubber bullets in Northern Ireland was hampered by their continued use in Irish prisons.
The worries have been detailed in confidential documents from 1985, around the time their use was stopped in Portlaoise Prison and army involvement was restricted.
A briefing note from the Department of the Taoisech contains worries from the governor of Portlaoise Prison that the army would only be drafted in riot situations when “a prison security block had possibly been wrecked”.
During the course of the Troubles, 17 people were killed by either rubber or plastic bullets. Eight of these deaths were to children under the age of 18.
All but one of the 17 who died from ‘baton rounds’ were from the Catholic community in Northern Ireland and the Irish government had campaigned against their use. Because of this reason, it was felt that it was inappropriate for them to be used in riot situations in prisons in the Republic.
In February 1985, the military guard at Portlaoise Prison were instructed by their bosses at the Curragh that authority for the use of baton rounds for riot control was suspended.
Furthermore, the prison was later told that by army operations officer that the military could no longer be employed “in an anti-riot role”:
He indicated that troops armed with rifle and bayonet would continue to be made available in “aid to the civil power” on the understanding that they would only be committed as a last resort when the gardaí and prison officers had pressed their resources to the limit and failed to contain the situation.
The documents show that prison officials were not on board with government policy, indicating that it could be too late at that point for army involvement if “prison officers and gardaí had been beaten into the ground”.
The governor goes on to say that the removal of rubber bullets could make the use of live ammunition more likely, something that could potential have lethal consequences:
He foresees the possibility, if live ammunition were used, of death and serious injuries to gardaí and prison officers from ricochetting bullets. He also considers that there would be injuries and deaths among subversive prisoners, which would be used by Provisional Sinn Féin for political and propaganda advantage. He thinks that it is likely that the prisoners would make an attempt to take possession of the firearms from the army which, if successful, would result in the security block becoming a bloodbath.