- Created: Tuesday, 06 March 2012 11:32
- Written by Paul Mallon
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 225 February/March 2012
On 20 December 2011 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) published a report entitled The rules of engagement, which argues that serious consideration should be given to the use of plastic bullets and water cannon and, where necessary, lethal force. The British state is preparing for class war and social unrest and, in doing so, will be relying on its experience in suppressing opposition to its rule in Ireland.
The report was commissioned by the Home Secretary following the August uprisings in English cities. It recommends the establishment of a national framework for resolving public disorder, with new rules of engagement supported by ever more sophisticated communication after fatal or controversial incidents, backed up by an ‘all source hub’ intelligence gathering with a greater emphasis on ‘advanced software analysis’ and social media monitoring. The report also states that: ‘in extreme circumstances, where life is threatened, their commanders must also be able to use extraordinary measures’.
Sir Denis O’Connor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary states: ‘if we don’t raise some of these awkward issues, then we are not giving people the chance to prepare for a future where we’re slightly more assured as to what will happen. Some new rules of engagement are necessary so the police can protect the public in confidence.’ These new rules of engagement will be dependent upon the balance of political forces at the given time; critical to this will be the role of the media and the need to control public opinion.
Anyone who for a minute considers that plastic bullets are not lethal weapons should look at the history of their use in the occupied north of Ireland. In 1970, when rubber bullets were first introduced by the British Army in Ireland, they were presented as not only harmless but humorous. The Guardian’s Simon Winchester described the ‘charming press officer’ of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, showing off the ‘soft and squidgy things’. Winchester reported how one Observer journalist was overheard saying ‘firing bullets made with rubber. Soon they’ll be lobbing grenades full of confetti, and guns that fire rose petals. You can’t take this sort of thing seriously at all.’1 Within three years rubber bullets had killed three people, including an 11-year-old boy, Francis Rowntree, and had caused countless injuries, including blinding. These deaths and injuries were said to be down to the unreliability of rubber bullets, which from 1973 to 1976 were then phased out in favour of the ‘safer alternative’ – the plastic bullet. These deadly weapons would go on to kill a further 14 people, including nine children; hundreds more people have been injured.
Clara Reilly of Relatives for Justice in Belfast stated: ‘What the British government did was keep coming up with all these schemes to try to cow the nationalist community into submission, and plastic bullets were used as a political control mechanism. Seven people were killed by plastic bullets during the hunger strike of 1981. Something like 60,000 bullets were fired over a few months.’2
As the struggle for political status escalated to hunger strikes which would lead to the deaths of ten men in Long Kesh prison, the level of terror on the streets intensified as the British army and police went on the rampage. On 13 May 1981 14-year-old Julie Livingston died after being shot in the head with a plastic bullet in the Stewartstown Road area of West Belfast. The bullet was fired by the British army from a distance of seven yards. They claimed that there was a riot going on following the death that day of IRA hunger striker Francis Hughes. This was not true and at her inquest the jury agreed that Julie had been an ‘innocent victim’.
A few days later, on 19 May, 11-year-old Carol Ann Kelly was shot by a plastic bullet fired from a distance of less than ten yards from a British Army land rover, as she was returning home with a carton of milk in Twinbrook, West Belfast. Again, the army press office claimed that there was rioting in the area as hunger strikers Raymond McCreesh (IRA) and Patsy O’Hara (INLA) had died that day. This lie outraged nationalist Ireland. Carol Ann Kelly died on 22 May 1981. The same day in Derry Harry Duffy died after being shot in the head by a plastic bullet by the British army, who yet again claimed that there had been a riot in the area at the time.
On 31 July 1981, as the hunger strike continued, Peter Doherty died, having been struck a week earlier by a plastic bullet as he stood in his kitchen in the Divis Flats area of West Belfast. On 9 August Peter McGuinness was hit in the chest with a plastic bullet on the Shore Road area of Belfast and died of his injuries. There was no riot in either area. Lily Fitzsimons, a founder of the Relatives Action Committees and leading campaigner for the fight for political status has stated: ‘We knew an enormous amount of support existed within the community, but many people were afraid to come out on to the streets because of the terror which was being inflicted on the community by the army and the RUC.’3
That the British police should raise the spectre of plastic bullets and water cannon, and the sanctioning of lethal force in such a way, gives us an indication of the current debate among the ruling class and how it intends to deal with the crisis. Preparation and plans are already underway and police forces across Britain are being systematically trained in public order control. The new movement in Britain must understand and learn from the experiences of the nationalist population of the north of Ireland at the hands of the British state, if serious effective opposition is to emerge.