‘Troubles’ legacy: Derry used as testing ground for plastic bullets

11-year-old Stephen McConomy who was killed by a plastic bullet fired by the British Army in April, 1982.
11-year-old Stephen McConomy who was killed by a plastic bullet fired by the British Army in April, 1982.
  • 17 people have been killed in Northern Ireland by members of the security forces who were using rubber or plastic bullets
  • Three people were killed by plastic bullets in Derry in the 80s
  • Derry was the testing ground for the PVC bullets

Derry was used as the testing ground for the futureuse of plastic bullets across the North in the early 1970s according to previously confidential British Army documents.

Papers recently uncovered by Belfast based researcher, Ciaran MacAirt, at the UK National Archives in Kew, London show that from the outset of their introduction the plastic baton rounds were to be tested on young rioters in the Bogside. Mr McAirt runs a charity called The Paper Trail which specialises in research relating to deaths during the ‘Troubles’.

The proposals drafted by AW Stephens, head of the British Army’s DS 10 unit or counter terrorism branch at the time in Northern Ireland is dated May 4, 1972.

The opening paragraph of the document states: “I attach a draft submission on the proposed plastic baton round, which is intended for use against the hooligans in Londonderry. (It is envisaged that the rubber round will remain in service for use in all other circumstances.)”

Another portion of the document decries the usefulness of rubber bullets in riot situations in order to promote the use of the new plastic version of the weapon.

“As you will be aware, the rubber baton round-though it has been and still remains very useful for dealing with hooligans and rioters in many circumstances-becomes increasingly ineffective at ranges above 35 metres. At 50 metres, its accuracy nor its terminal effect is sufficient; indeed hooligans have on occasions caught rubber bullets in flight at this range. Rioters can throw stones, bottles and small petrol bombs effectively at 60 metres. This is exploited regularly by hooligans in Londonderry: their aim being often to draw troops forward to points at which snipers can engage them,” the document continues.

The head of DS 10 in outlining the dangers of the rubber baton round in the document stated: “The rubber round itself can be dangerous. One blinded a woman in Belfast last November (1971) and broke bones in her face. An 11-year-old boy recently died from a fractured skull; no inquest has been held yet, but we understand from the pathologist that the injury was not inconsistent with this cause-though the boy’s skull was quite abnormally thin, more so than the pathologist had ever previously encountered…”

The 11-year-old boy referred to is Francis Rowntree whose legacy inquest is currently going on. The British document that contains references to his death is the one that reveals Derry was to be used as the testing ground for the plastic baton round.

The document also outlines that initial tests of the plastic bullets were carried out on sheep at the Ministry of Defence science and technology laboratory at Porton Down in England. Reporting on these results, the document states: “At ranges significantly less than 25 metres it is highly likely that the PVC round hitting a person would cause serious injury and depending on the position of the strike and the age, health and clothing of the person, might be lethal.”

AW Stephens, head of the British Army’s DS 10 also wrote: “I accept that there could be no question of using the proposed PVC round, which has a 45 grain propellant, save under the strictest of conditions and controls.”

15-year-old Paul Whitters, who died after being hit by a plastic bullet fired by the RUC in April, 1981.

15-year-old Paul Whitters, who died after being hit by a plastic bullet fired by the RUC in April, 1981.

Nevertheless, AW Stephens continues by stating: “Those proposed are-(a) use only (in the first instance at any rate) within the Londonderry City Boundaries west of the Foyle.”

The paper also states: “We have also indicated that it may be desirable to extend the use of the new round to other areas than Londonderry in due course.”

In May of 1973, 21-year-old Tomas Friel died five days after being struck by a rubber bullet fired at him at close range by a British soldier in Creggan. In 2014, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland ordered a fresh inquest into the killing.

In the 1980s, plastic baton rounds claimed the lives of three people in Derry. The first victim was 15-year-old Paul Whitters who died 10 days after being hit by a baton round fired by the RUC at Great James Street in April of 1981. The following month, in May, 1981, 45-year-old Henry Duffy died after being struck by a round fired by the RUC in the Bogside. In April of 1982, 11-year-old Stephen McConomy died three days after being struck by a plastic bullet fired at him at close range by the British Army in Fahan Street in the city.

In Derry, in May of 1973, Thomas Friel died after being struck by a rubber bullet

Use only (in the first instance at any rate) within the Londonderry City Boundaries west of the Foyle
Anniversary of Internment march to Andersonstown at which banned Noraid man Martin Galvin appeared in August, 1984. The RUC moved in on the crowd as soon as Galvin got onto the platform at the Sinn Fein centre. They fired plastic bullets and used batons to clear the crowd. Several were seriously injured by plastic bullets and Sean Downes, seen here lying on the ground was killed.

Anniversary of Internment march to Andersonstown at which banned Noraid man Martin Galvin appeared in August, 1984. The RUC moved in on the crowd as soon as Galvin got onto the platform at the Sinn Fein centre. They fired plastic bullets and used batons to clear the crowd. Several were seriously injured by plastic bullets and Sean Downes, seen here lying on the ground was killed.

The modern plastic baton round.

The modern plastic baton round.