The use of plastic bullets and water cannon in Northern Ireland is a dehumanising relic

History shows that the "non-lethal" weapons deployed against civilians are neither accurate nor safe.

The on-going disturbances in Belfast over the decision of the city council to limit the flying of the Union flag now routinely see the Police Service of Northern Ireland deploy water cannon and baton rounds against protestors.

To be sure, these are hardly peaceful encounters, with 29 police officers injured in clashes over the last weekend. The police will feel justified in suspending Marquis of Queensbury rules and using the full range of tactics available to them to deal with such serious and persistent violence.

And yet, the thought of using baton rounds and water cannon in any other British city, or against, say, students, would be utterly unthinkable. But in most of the coverage of this dispute their regular tactical use merits little more than a passing remark.

Over the weekend, Sky News casually described baton rounds as "non-lethal". Yet history shows otherwise. The University of Ulster found that the use of such "non-lethal" weapons in policing the Troubles led to the deaths of 17 people, ten of whom were aged eighteen or under.

In fairness, there have been various attempts over four decades to come up with safer models. Rubber bullets, first used in Northern Ireland as long ago as August 1970, tended to ricochet wildly, injuring the unintended, often grievously.

They gave way to plastic bullets in the mid-1970s. However there were technical and reliability issues throughout the period of the Troubles before a new weapon, the L104A1 gun and the L21A1 baton round were deployed in 2001. This weapon boasted improved accuracy and safety over earlier versions, however the Defence Scientific Advisory Council still found that:

Users should be made aware that L21A1 baton rounds can ricochet in some circumstances with high energy, and that the presence of obstacles and of personnel other than the intended target should form part of their risk assessment in the decision to fire the weapon…

Yet the Omega Research Foundation (which specialises in evidence-based research into police and military technologies) was starker, describing it as "neither an accurate nor a safe weapon" in a major review. Nevertheless, the L21A1 rounds were defended by then policing minister Hazel Blears in 2004 on the basis that the risk of ricochet would be resolved by "police firearms training"

But in 2005 the Police Service of Northern Ireland began using a new weapon, the Attenuating Energy Projectile (AEP). This was deemed to be the safest option yet, with the projected round designed to collapse upon impact with a vulnerable area of the body, "reducing the probability of serious or life threatening injury", according to the Home Office’s Scientific Development Branch’s review of Less Lethal Technologies (note "less" not "non").

But the weapon is designed to be fired in a specific way. The AEP should be aimed to strike directly with the lower part of a target’s body (classed as below the rib cage). "Officers are trained to use the belt buckle area as the point of aim at all ranges, thus mitigating against upper body hits," says the report.

Yet Amnesty International and the Omega Research Foundation are less sanguine. Giving evidence to the Home Office Select Committee hearings into the summer 2011 riots (where there was a prospect of AEPs being used in Britain for the first time), they recommended that "further research and evaluation is undertaken into the AEP in order to better understand the associated injury pattern and risks."

However they are finessed, baton rounds require not only careful assessment of whether the target is a real threat to life, but also the selection of the correct part of the target’s anatomy. However accurately they are discharged (and assuming it is used by someone properly trained), there remains a potential to harm the individual struck or for the projectile to ricochet and hit other people.

Given the numbers of children involved in Northern Ireland’s street disputes, the concern must be that they can sustain more serious injuries than adults, given the relative size and vulnerability of their bodies.

A similar risk is inherent with using water cannon. As far back as 2002, the Defence Scientific Advisory Council’s Sub-Committee on the Medical Implications of Less Lethal Weapons recommended to the Northern Ireland Office that:

The impact of a high-pressure water jet from a water cannon is a high momentum event and may therefore lead to the displacement of the body. In certain scenarios (such as people close to solid obstacles), the potential for an increased risk of injury exists. Future guidance and training should reflect the risks arising from the displacement of people and objects.

Northern Ireland’s ‘otherness’ often sees different rules apply when it comes to policing and security, usually, it seems, for no better reason than that its legacy of fairly brutal practices has become normalised. It gives rise to the criticism that Northern Ireland has become a testing ground for such less-lethal weapons. Yet the regular use of baton rounds and water cannon against civilians, whatever their cause, within a corner of the British state is a dehumanising relic. Surely we can do better?

Police stand guard with a baton gun and riot shields in front of a burning car in east Belfast. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”