Address by Clara Reilly : Belfast Waterfront Hall

Press Release – Friday 14th May 2004 Belfast
Waterfront Hall

Children and Young Persons Rights
and Advocacy in Times of Conflict and Transition

Address by Clara Reilly Chairperson of Relatives for Justice and founder
member of the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets.

Rubber and plastic bullets were first introduced into the North of
Ireland in the early seventies. They were described by the government as
non-lethal riot control weapon with strict guidelines governing their

They were introduced despite the result of tests carried out by the
American army that described them as being in “the severe damage
category” resulting in such injuries as skull fractures and
fragmentation of the liver. Other tests later carried out by doctors at
the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) in Belfast showed they caused brain
damage, blindness, paralysis, smashed hands, triple fractures of the
legs and injuries to the kidney, liver, groin and throat.

When twelve-year-old Paul Corr was hit in the face with a plastic
bullet, it tore off part of his nose, shattered and ripped out his
pallet, and forced his teeth down into his mouth. Three people died as a
result of rubber bullet injuries including eleven year old Francis
Rowntree, who died in 1972, the first victim of this controversial
weapon. It was claimed that bullet fired at Francis was fired from a
distance of feet away and eyewitnesses claimed that the rubber bullet
was ‘doctored’ – meaning the top of the bullet had an AA type battery
inserted into it. It was common knowledge that these bullets were
doctored and at the Bloody Sunday Inquiry Dr. Richard Sheppard, an
independent forensic scientist to the inquiry, concluded that injuries
to Mr. McDaid were in fact the result of such doctoring. It had
initially been thought that a live round had hit Mr. McDaid. There was
no rioting at the time of Francis’s killing. However, as in most cases a
riot ensued shortly after he was shot.

My first introduction to the damage inflicted by this weapon was my
friend Emma Groves, the mother of eleven children, the youngest only
five years of age. Emma was hit in the face by a rubber bullet as she
stood in her own living room. Such was the severity of the injuries that
both her eyes had to be removed and she faced months of plastic surgery
to rebuild the bridge of her nose which had been shattered by the
impact. Just imagine the fear and trauma suffered by the children who
witnessed this and who faced years of coping with their blind mother.
The elder female children now had to take over the role of mother and
housekeeper as Emma tried to come to terms with what had happened to
her. Mother Teresa, who had been in Belfast at the time, visited Emma in
hospital and broke the news to her that she would never see again.

On the 10th October 1976 I was a witness to the killing of thirteen year
old Brian Stewart, who was hit in the head by a plastic bullet – fired
by a member of the British Army on the streets of Turf Lodge in West

I can state with all honesty, as did eight other independent witnesses,
including the local parish priest, that there was no riot-taking place
when the plastic bullet was fired. After the boy had been removed by
ambulance a full-scale riot did occur when angry locals confronted the
soldiers. This was a clear case were the firing of plastic bullets
incited a riot instead of stopping one. Brian Stewart was placed on a
life support machine and died six days later of severe brain damage.

Carol Anne Kelly was returning home from an errand for a neighbour on
the 19th May 1981. Her mother Eileen was anxious that her children stay
around the family home as tensions were high in nationalists areas as
the hunger strikers started to die. She watched from her window as the
children stopped outside her neighbour’s home while at the same time
observing two British army carriers appear from around the corner. The
first military carrier stopped and Eileen Kelly was horrified to see a
plastic bullet gun appear from one of the side portholes. She was even
more horrified when it was aimed at the two little girls. Two plastic
bullets fired out. She saw her daughter fall and ran screaming from the
house to find Carol Anne lying unconscious and bleeding profusely from a
wound to the back of the head. The second jeep had stopped and one of
the soldiers ran up the grass bank and he kept shouting back to his
comrade, “it’s only a little girl, it’s only a little girl”….. Local
people who had started to gather remonstrated with him only to be told
by the distraught mother to let the soldier administer first aid. He
attempted to apply a pressure dressing to the wound but his commanding
officer ordered him back to the carrier, reprimanding him for leaving
his rifle down on the ground while he tended the child. Carol Anne was
placed on a life support machine but died several days later. She was
twelve years of age.

Nearly 30,000 plastic bullets were fired in 1981 killing seven people in
total, seventeen people have been killed with rubber and plastic
bullets, eight of them school children. Along with the ones I have
mentioned there was Stephen Geddis aged 10 years, Paul Whitters aged 15
years, Julie Livingstone aged 14 years, Stephen McConomy aged 11 years
and Seamus Duffy aged 15 years. I purposely name these children and the
facts behind some of their killings to emphasise in the strongest terms
possible the legacy in human terms of the miss-use of plastic bullets
and the brutal reality of their deaths. These weapons have killed and
seriously injured hundreds of others maiming and disfiguring many for
life. They have left a catalogue of carnage, grief and brutal sectarian
oppression. Independent international studies of plastic bullets have
shown that they are lethal and excessively dangerous weapons – that
their use was not monitored and those who have used them to kill or maim
innocent people have not been brought to justice is a further indictment
and adds to the widely held belief that rubber and plastic bullets are
indeed the technology of political control. Consequently their very
mention instils fear given their lethal capacity and the nature of
impunity for those who use them.

Thousands of pounds in compensation has been paid to the bereaved and
injured and yet this tacit acknowledgement of culpability is not matched
in punitive actions. Not one member of the ‘security forces’ so called
has ever been convicted in relation to the deaths or injuries. The rules
governing the use of plastic bullets have been flouted time and time
again. All of those killed by rubber and plastic bullets – and indeed
those who lost eyes, suffered severe internal organ injuries, paralysis,
and brain damage, were hit in the head or upper body regions and almost
all at close blank range. This predominately occurred in non-riot
situations and in contravention to the British government’s own stated
‘rules’ supposedly governing the use of rubber and plastic bullets,
which state that they should not fired directly at targets, must be
fired from a ‘safe’ distance – their term which is determined at 30
meters – must not be fired at the upper body, and mostly definitely not
to be used in non-riot or life threatening situations.

Condemnation of these bullets has come from respected world wide human
rights groups, the Taoiseach, US Congress and the European Parliament
who voted on several occasions to have these weapons banned. The
Catholic Bishops of Ireland have consistently added their voice also.
Just two years ago, in capacity of Relatives for Justice, we met with
the UN Special Rapporteur, on the rights of the child and introduced her
to several children who had quite recently been injured by plastic
bullets. Some of who were suffering long term physical damage and whose
education and vital exams had also been affected. Following the
recommendations of the Committee against Torture, the UN Committee on
the Rights of the Child called for the abolition of the use of plastic
bullets as a means of riot control. The British Gov has conveniently
ignored all of these calls and recommendations.

We – The United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets – led a delegation of
bereaved relatives and those injured to address the Patten Commission on
Policing resulting form the all-party negotiations of 1998 and the Good
Friday Agreement. The directive from the subsequent Patten Report was to
find a safer alternative to the plastic bullet. After five years a
so-called ‘safer’ plastic bullet was the introduced on the 1st Jun 2001.
We discovered, via the good offices of our parliamentarian friend Kevin
McNamara MP, that according to the British Ministry of Defence’s own
research, conducted in secrecy by the Defence Advisory Scientific
Council Report which Mr McNamara was able to obtain and place in the
public library of the House of Commons, that the new bullet would lead
to more injuries from ricochets and more severe damage if they strike
the body and head even from the stated ‘safe’ distance. In fact the
research also shows that if the new bullet strikes the skull head on
there is a substantial risk that the projectile will be retained in the
head – embedded. It is our view that the Patten Commission certainly had
not intended on this approach and therefore the introduction of this new
bullet is not in keeping with the spirit of the Patten Report. Indeed
the research into this new bullet predated the Patten Commission and was
therefore somewhat disingenuously availing of Patten’s recommendations
as a convenient vehicle for its introduction. It was equally ironic that
at the time of its introduction the British government was rigorously
pursuing an agenda of disarmament. And that the bullet, with such a
physical and psychological impact legacy, came at a time of conflict
resolution beggared belief.

What we have seen is huge amounts of research and internal conferences,
which focus almost exclusively on military technology, rather than
transitional policing methods. Andree Murphy, Deputy Director of
Relatives for Justice, and myself recently attended an international law
enforcement forum in London. I was hoping that Police chiefs in England
would bring an understanding to the North of Ireland of the importance
of community relations and bridge building in terms of the stated new
beginning to policing as part of the agreement of 1998 and the Patten
report. And that this conference might have shown the values of policies
of containment such as those used so recently in Oldham and Bradford
were no lives were lost during extremely serious rioting in which
unarmed police officers acted to quell disturbances and restore order.
It must also be noted the police in this situation also faced gunfire
and petrol bombs.

The process of finding an alternative to plastic bullets here has now
unfortunately influenced the thinking of English constabularies to the
point that they have now introduced plastic bullets into operation.
Previously they were proscribed and used only in the North of Ireland.

This conference was framed around advancing such weaponry with lip
service only to human rights. I personally wish that the resources and
enthusiasm for on the shelf-off the shelf emerging military advances to
policing would be poured into training and research programmes about
promoting human rights and winning the trust and confidence of
communities affected by multiple Human Rights abuses.

As I see it there is too much emphasis on drawing comparison’s on
policing methods with Super- States in which rights can be violated and
become secondary to other competing commercial and political interests.
This part of Ireland lies between two jurisdictions with unarmed police
services and in a Northern European context that means human rights must
take primacy. Emerging from armed conflict and in a peace process means
securing proper policing methods, particularly when policing has been
political, partisan and down right bad and when principally plastic
bullets were almost exclusively against one section of the community
within a politically divided society. Getting policing and criminal
justice right is the key – that means human rights are the only guiding
principles. Only then will the most vulnerable in our society namely our
children be protected and cherished.

Plastic Bullets have not furthered peace. If anything they have
prolonged the conflict. Plastic bullets remain a huge barrier preventing
young nationalists from joining the policing service. The policy of
impunity that occurred in every single plastic bullet fatality must
never be permitted to happen again. There should be no line drawn under
the past only lessons learned – lessons that will enable all of a more
just future and us to build a better future for all our children.

In recent days there has been more announcements pertaining to a
proposed consultation on dealing with our past. With respect to plastic
bullets any mechanism developed as a result of consultation must deal
firstly with the legacy of impunity. We must have historical
clarification as part of our transition from conflict to peace with
truth and justice. It is with such examination that the awful legacy of
plastic bullets, their use and intent, will be exposed which will
consequently lead to the only logical and feasible conclusion – that
they have no place here.

However, we can start that process now by ensuring no more children
loose their lives leaving tragedy and heartache behind and no more
people left permanently scared and disabled for life. Human rights must
underpin that process and introducing more lethal weaponry runs contrary
to this. Plastic bullets have no place in a transitional society
emerging from armed conflict – they must go and go now.