The Journal today reveals the extraordinary lengths the British government went to to ensure the shocking truth about rubber bullets remained under wraps.
Declassified confidential documents from the 1970s reveal that British officials not only knew rubber bullets could be lethal but that the testing of the weapon had taken place “in a shorter time than was ideal.”
The revelations are contained in a series of official papers relating to the compensation case of local man, Richard Moore, who was blinded by a rubber bullet fired by a British soldier in 1972. Richard was aged just ten years old when he lost his sight.
The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) later settled the case with the Moore family out of court for £68,000 - a figure mentioned in the papers as a “rock bottom price.”
The documentation was unearthed recently in London’s Public Records Office by the Derry-based Pat Finucane Centre.
Correspondence between British officials appears to indicate that the authorities had been in such a hurry to develop ‘riot control weapons’ in the early 1970s that they rushed through the testing of rubber bullets.
The papers also reveal that officials feared Richard Moore’s legal team might seek disclosure of certain background documents detailing the safety of rubber bullets - reports that would reveal the weapon had not been adequately tested.
One particularly damning document reveals that “... the Ministry was aware that it could be lethal” but that this was accepted “in order to give the Army a riot control weapon of lower lethality than the SLR [self-loading rifle] in the shortest possible time.”
Such a public revelation, the letter’s author acknowledges, could prove damaging.
Another document asks in relation to Mr. Moore’s case: “Would disclosure of these documents, and examination of an MOD witness in court, be so damaging to MOD interests that in your view the case should be settled at almost any cost?”
More documentation reads: “Now that we know that our documents relating to rubber bullets are all subject to discovery, [named MoD division] has no hesitation in recommending that we attempt to settle out of court. From earlier soundings, I believe that this view will now be shared by other MOD divisions.”
It continues: “If an attempt to settle is to be made, we should instruct out lawyers within 48 hours so that we can avoid, if possible, the production of documents.”
Richard Moore, founder of the Children in Crossfire charity, said he was “surprised and saddened” when informed of the content of the documents.
He said: “I was a 10-year-old boy blinded by a rubber bullet and to know that people at a government level tried to cover things up and withhold information is a shock.”
“The state has a responsibility to look after its citizens and its children. They have to be responsible, and, clearly, the state wasn’t taking responsibility here.”
“For me, personally, it’s over,” Mr. Moore added. “It doesn’t change how I feel, though. I have no anger, no hatred; I have dealt with the blindness and dealt with being shot. I hope this helps others affected by rubber bullets and, for them, I hope, somehow, this can begin a new process of honesty and openness that they deserve.”
In a statement this week, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said: “The MoD greatly regrets that Mr Moore was blinded at such a young age as a result of this incident and our thoughts remain with all those who were killed or injured during that time - both military and civilian.
“Lessons have been learned following the tragic events during that period of conflict and compensation payments have been made in recognition of that.”
Paul O’Connor, of the Pat Finucane Centre, said the discovery of the documents revealed the British government was “willing to pay almost any amount of tax-payers’ money and to go to almost any lengths” to ensure the truth about rubber bullets didn’t emerge.
“At every level, civil servants in different ministries colluded to ensure a 10 year-old boy was denied the truth,” Mr O’Connor said.
He believes the new evidence could have “significant implications” for other cases involving deaths and serious injuries arising from rubber bullets, including the case of another Derry man, Thomas Friel, who died, aged 21, after being struck on the head by a rubber bullet in May 1973.
The PFC says it now intends to seek access to further withheld documents via Freedom of Information requests.
For more, go to www.patfinucanecentre.org