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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser