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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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition