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Water cannons could be "more lethal than plastic bullets". That's what the UK told Ireland...

17 people were killed by either rubber or plastic bullets during The Troubles.

Nationalist rioters run for cover as British troops open fire with rubber bullets in 1972.
Nationalist rioters run for cover as British troops open fire with rubber bullets in 1972.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

IRELAND WAS TOLD by the UK Government thirty years ago that using water cannons on rioters in Northern Ireland could be “more lethal than plastic bullets”.

According to a confidential government document released under the 30 Year Rule, the claim was made by the UK’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Prior in a meeting with Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Barry in October 1983.

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.

These weapons were often described as “non-lethal” by the security forces but the deaths plainly show that this was not the case.

Rubber bullets are often prone to ricocheting and hitting unintended targets, sometimes grievously or fatally. The same is the case for plastic bullets which were introduced later and are lethal at close range.

All but one of the 17 who died from ‘baton rounds’ were from the Catholic community in Northern Ireland.

In the Hillsborough meeting, Minister Berry appeared to be seeking reassurance that alternative crowd control methods were being examined, but Prior defended the use of plastic bullets.

The minutes of the meeting recall the exchange:

Mr. Prior said that only two bullets had been fired in September…He felt that this element of control had an effect. They were not being indiscriminately used as in earlier times. The last death had been in May 1982.

Barry sought information on whether “there was any progress in developing new tactics that would obviate the need for plastic bullets.”

Prior said that ‘tests with water cannon had indicated that their use might be more lethal than plastic bullets”.

Water cannons were eventually introduced in Northern Ireland in 2008.

Twelfth of July commemorations Water cannons were eventually introduced in Northern Ireland in 2008. Source: Paul Faith

Maze Prison escape

The two minsters also discussed the IRA’s Maze prison escape which had happened the month previous. The Irish minister expressed concern for the IRA prisoners who were still in prison, saying the Government had received information that they had been ill-treated afterwards.

Thirty-eight IRA members broke out of their H-block cells in was seen at the time as a major coup for the IRA, the British Government faced calls to resign following the escape.

Prior himself acknowledged that the escape had been a “major victory for the IRA”.

Barry said that the Irish Government had received information from a number of sources that prisoners had been ill-treated after the breakout. He added that “there seemed to be a lack of control over the prison officers”.

The NI Secretary responded that, ‘some prisoners had been injured at the time of the escape but that one had to bear in mind that a prison officer had been killed (in the escape) and another seriously wounded.’

He added he was not aware of any other incidents but asked his private secretary confirmed that he was aware of at least one incident where a prisoner had lost his front teeth.

Read: Hooded, food and sleep deprived: Calls for Ireland to push for torture case against UK >

Read: “Life, a long long time ago” – Documentary follows Guildford Four’s Paddy Armstrong to London >

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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