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A single-shot rubber bullet gun Alamy Stock Photo

Ahern sought rubber bullet ban to put pressure on UK to restrict their use in Northern Ireland

Internal controversy broke out over the purchase of 2,000 baton rounds in June 1997.

THE IRISH GOVERNMENT moved to ban rubber bullets in 1997 as part of plans to put pressure on the UK Government to do the same.

According to formerly confidential documents that were released to the National Archives, then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern proposed that Ireland should ban the use of rubber bullets and destroy any existing stock within the State in December 1997.

The files, released yearly to the National Archives, provide further detail to both journalists and historians on historical events.

The previously confidential files from the Department of An Taoiseach’s Northern Ireland division have just been released, with the documents providing further information on the road to the Good Friday Agreement.

Ahern, who had only come into the Taoiseach’s office six months earlier, argued in favour of banning rubber bullets to try put pressure on the UK Government to do the same.

Rubber bullets, or baton rounds, were initially invented by UK security forces as a response to the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s as a ‘less lethal’ weapon for crowd control in riots.

However, the weapon can still be lethal when fired at close range, with 17 people being killed in Northern Ireland between when they were introduced and up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

While the Cabinet sub-committee on Northern Ireland recommended that they be banned, the Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Tim Dalton, warned that it would remove a “non-lethal option” for use in a “Strangeways riot type situation”.

The 1990 Strangeways Prison riot occurred in Manchester over 25 days, with prisoners taking control of the prison before staging a rooftop protest.

Dalton also questioned whether or not the British would follow suit and said that it was the “misuse” of baton rounds in Northern Ireland that lead to deaths and injuries.

In particular, he highlighted that if rubber bullets had been used during Bloody Sunday, there would have been significantly lower casualties.

“Had rubber bullets been the weapon of choice on Bloody Sunday, it is unlikely that death would have occurred on anything like the same scale at all,” read the minutes of the meeting.

Previous correspondence from 10 years prior between then-Taoiseach Charles Haughey and then-Justice Minister Gerard Collins was also examined, which said that they were necessary for riot control despite their “unpleasant connotations” from their use in Northern Ireland.

Despite this, Ahern and other ministers agreed that the use of rubber bullets should be banned in Ireland and that the existing stock be destroyed.

ulster-talks-ahern Taoiseach Bertie Ahern speaking at the signing of the Good Friday Agreement PA PA

Alongside the aim of putting pressure on the British, the Government argued that there were other non-lethal options available and that more alternatives to rubber bullets may become available in the future.

It was also noted that rubber bullets had only been used three times in the State, in 1973, 1974 and 1976.

These were at a demonstration at the Curragh Camp in 1973, at a riot in Portlaoise prison in 1974 and at the funeral of an IRA hunger striker Frank Stagg in 1976.

Internal controversy

The move to ban rubber bullets outright came just months after an internal controversy broke out between the Department of Defence and the Department of An Taoiseach over the planned purchase of 2,000 rubber bullets in September.

According to correspondence between Ahern and Minister for Defence, David Andrews, an order had been placed to resupply stocks of rubber bullets on 19 June 1997, one week ahead of the formation of the new Government.

The purchase of the munitions had initially been reported by the Anglo-Irish Secretariat, who informed Ahern that it had caused “some embarrassment” for Irish delegates when it was brought up during a meeting with UK Minister of State Adam Ingram.

According to Andrews, the new stock had been purchased for training purposes and that it wasn’t signed off on by senior Department of Defence officials due to the low cost of the order.

“The purpose of the purchase was the replacement of stock which is now in the region of 300 to enable the continuation of training in the use of such ammunition,” Andrews said in a letter to Ahern.

00013120 Minister for Defence, David Andrews, pictured in 1998 Eamonn Farrell Eamonn Farrell

“Due to the relatively small value of the order (approx. £7,000 sterling) the matter was dealt with at junior level and the antennae of the staff concerned were not attuned to the wider implications which would dictate that it should have been submitted to senior authority to ensure full consideration of all the issues arising.”

Two years on, in June 1999, the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Defence, Michael O’Donohoe, sought to purchase CS gas (tear gas) as current stocks had reached the end of their shelf life.

In total, O’Donohoe wanted to purchase 800 rounds of CS gas projectiles and 600 rounds of CS gas grenades.

O’Donohoe warned that due to the ban on baton rounds, if CS gas was not available to the Defence Forces, the next “degree of force” available during crowd control operations would be to use warning shots.

However, Dr Martin Mansergh, a special advisor to Ahern, wrote back to O’Donohoe and refused the purchase of the munitions.

“I have spoken to the Taoiseach, and like myself he is not in favour of using or stocking equipment, the use of which we have criticised in Northern Ireland. He feels we have to be consistent,” Mansergh wrote.

“We do not understand, why water cannons, for instance, should not be available or why they could not be acquired.”

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