In April 1982 eleven year-old Derry schoolboy Stephen McConomy, like hundreds of other children in the city, made his Confirmation. Two weeks later he was dead. He was shot and killed by a plastic bullet, fired by a British soldier just yards from his home in the Bogside.
The St John’s Primary School pupil had been out playing with friends on April 16th, 1982 when a member of the British army’s Royal Anglian regiment shot him in the head with a plastic bullet. Eyewitnesses who tried to go to the boy’s aid were prevented from doing so by the soldiers, who threatened to shoot anyone who went near him. Eventually Stephen was taken to Altnagelvin hospital and then immediately transferred to the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast where he died three days later.
More than 1,000 people attended the schoolboy’s funeral and leading figures, including the Bishop of Derry, Dr Edward Daly, called for an end to the use of plastic bullets.
No British soldiers have ever been charged in connection with the schoolboy’s death.
Emmett McConomy was just seven years-old when his brother was killed but has said it is “still harrowing” for the family.
Emmett said he doesn’t remember much from the time but that his brother’s memory was always with him growing up. “I have been looking at photos of Stephen and it brings everything back,” he said.
“We have his Confirmation photo which was taken less than two weeks before his death. In it he is wearing the same jumper he was wearing when he was shot. The next photo that was taken of him was in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast after he was shot and he was lying unconscious. He was dead a short time later.
“The clothes he was wearing when he was shot were taken away to be examined and were returned to us by the police wrapped in brown paper. My late mother kept that brown paper package with his striped jumper in it in the wardrobe for years after his death,” he said.
Emmett also said that it is clear Stephen was not posing a threat to the soldiers when he was shot. “Stephen was small in stature. There is no way anyone could have taken him for anything other than a child. The army claimed he was shot from a distance of 17 feet; eyewitnesses have told us it was more like seven feet. He was completely innocent. Everyone knows that.
“Stephen lay face down on the grass after he was hit and when others tried to come to his aid the soldiers threatened them saying they would get the same. They knew exactly what they had done,” he said.
His brother said the lack of a proper investigation into the incident added to the family’s pain at the time. “In 2003 we met senior PSNI detectives in Strand Road to get information on the initial police investigation. We were told that the soldier who fired the fatal shot was interviewed under caution and said that it was an accident. That was the extent of the investigation.
“It is unbelievable that someone can take the life of a child and explain it away as an accident and even more unbelievable that it was taken no further than that.
“As a family we have sent letters to the soldiers involved, addressed with their names, but the MoD refused to pass them on to the soldiers, saying it was not their policy. The soldier who shot Stephen wasn’t following Mod policy and broke all the rules.
“He took the plastic bullet gun off the designated gunner and leaned over the driver to fire out a side window. The military said the gun jammed and he was clearing it and pulled the trigger twice. They also claimed the gun was not accurate and that it did not fire in a straight line. Conveniently the gun was later destroyed, despite the fact that it was involved in the death of a child,” he said.
Emmett McConomy also said his mother never got her son’s death. “My mother was always tormented by his death. She never got over it and always expected him to come back through the door. For years she always set a place for him at the table. She never accepted his death. It must be different when someone loses a child as a result of an accident, but it is a very different thing for a mother to have a child murdered and for it not even to be have been properly investigated.
“She then had to go through the trauma of having her home raided by the same regiment who shot her son. They did it just to antagonise her.
“It is a testament to her that she managed to carry on and raise the rest of us. She had the support of many people in the city and that kept her going,” he explained.
The family are engaging the with Historical Enquiries Team (HET) in an effort to find out more about what Stephen’s killing. Emmett now believes that despite the passage of time, the family can still get some answers about what happened to Stephen, although he acknowledges that it is unlikely that the soldier who fired the baton round will ever be prosecuted.
“I don’t think we will ever get full justice. The police failed to investigate properly at the time and, with all the years in between, it seems unlikely, but we live in hope.
“We don’t believe there will be prosecutions but Stephen deserves a proper investigation. He was innocent. He was a citizen and was entitled to the same rights as everyone else. It seems that people living in the North, even children, were not afforded the same rights as everyone else.
“What happened was unjustified. There was nothing in MoD guidelines to justify what happened,” he said.
He also called for a fresh inquest to be held into his brother’s death. “At the time the family were not happy with the original inquest. We will be meeting with the HET next week and while we will wait to see what comes out of that and how their investigation is progressing, it could open up new options to us. Maybe a fresh inquest would bring us some answers,” he added.
The Derry man also said that the family hope to see an end to the use of plastic bullets. “They are still there. They may not be used as frequently as they used to be but the police still have the power to use them and they are still as lethal as ever.
“Watching the coverage of the riots in England last year the hypocrisy was clear. The government said plastic bullets should not be used but their use is still allowed here.
“It is wrong to use plastic bullets on the streets of Manchester or London and it is equally wrong to use them here. There are better alternatives now, and there was even better alternatives 30 years ago. As a family we have always wanted them to be withdrawn. We had hoped that would be the legacy of Stephen’s death. We hoped he would be the last. Unfortunately that has not been the case,” he said. Emmett also said the McConomy family would like to thank the people of Derry for their support throughout the years.
To mark the 30th anniversary of Stephen’s death a plaque will be unveiled on Fahan Street close to the spot where he was shot on Thursday, April 19th at 6pm. This will be followed by an event in the Tower Hotel examining the details of his death and the campaign for justice.