Parliament was told on 10 June that "a significant proportion" of plastic bullets supplied for use in 1994 had been found to have "muzzle velocities in excess of the upper limit in the equipment specific- ation". They were being fired at a higher speed than the Ministry limit.
That suggests some Defence officials knew faulty, high-speed bullets were being used in disturbances associated with last summer's marching season. More than 8,000 rounds were fired last year.
John Spellar, a junior Defence Minister, said in reply to a pre-arranged question earlier this month that all suspect rounds had been withdrawn from use in April.
But in answer to follow-up questions put down this week by Brian Sedgemore, Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, the ministry yesterday disclosed that it first discovered the fault in early 1996 following "trials" carried out in 1995.
John Reid, Minister for the Armed Forces, told Mr Sedgemore: "Assessment of these initial tests in early 1996 indicated some of the rounds were going marginally faster than the specified velocity, but the tests were not considered conclusive."
Nevertheless, Adam Ingram, a Northern Ireland Minister, told Mr Sedgemore: "The RUC received notification from the Ministry of Defence on 24 March 1997 that some 1994 rounds were outside the agreed specification. All rounds were withdrawn by 25 April 1997."
The Northern Ireland Office does not know whether any suspect bullets were fired after the March warning.
Mr Sedgemore told The Independent yesterday he was astonished the MoD should have taken a year to tell the RUC of the fault, and was more astonished it took a month to withdraw the dangerous missiles and that no Commons announcement was made for another six weeks.
"This may not be the last Conservative cover-up that we discover in Whitehall but it could well be one of the worst," he said.
Asked why an announcement had been delayed, Dr Reid told the MP it was a matter for the Tories. "These events relate to a previous administration," he said. "I am advised by officials that issues concerning the performance of plastic baton rounds were under consideration between the departments concerned and no decision had then been reached on the form or timing of a public announcement."
According to the Commons answers, the RUC has fired 7,437 rounds and the Armed Forces have fired 1,424 since the faulty bullets were issued on 18 May 1994. But Defence sources earlier told The Independent the RUC fired 6,951 rounds last year alone, with another 1,386 fired by the Army. Most had been used during last year's disturbances, including Drumcree.
Mr Ingram told Mr Sedgemore: "There have been 94 alleged injuries associated with incidents involving use of plastic baton rounds since the beginning of 1994."Reuse content