Mowlam targets plastic bullets

New curbs on use in Ulster
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The Independent Online
Deep unease among senior ministers about excessive firing of plastic bullets in Northern Ireland is expected to lead to curbs on their use. Senior members of the government believe guidelines for use of baton rounds in Northern Ireland are too loose and want them brought into line with far stricter rules in force in England and Wales, where they have never been used.

A review has already been set up by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) and is expected to report by the end of the year. Ministers know that such a move would help the peace process because nationalists in the province believe that the weapons have been used disproportionately against them.

Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has told The Independent: "The Government is determined, as are the police officers concerned, that guidelines for dealing with public disorder and for the use of police equipment such as firearms (into which category plastic baton round guns fall) must be coherent, up-to-date and appropriate for the prevailing circumstances."

Since 1972, 17 people have been killed and more than 100 gravely injured by plastic bullets in Northern Ireland. The most recent death was in 1989, but in April two teenagers were hit in the head with baton rounds as they came out of a youth club. Both were seriously injured.

The use of plastic bullets has escalated over the last two years, with almost 11,000 fired since January 1996. Even in 1995, when the last IRA ceasefire was in place, the Royal Ulster Constabulary fired 273 plastic bullets during disturbances.

The Independent has discovered marked disparities between the rules for the use of plastic bullets by the RUC, the army, and police forces in Britain. All three sets of guidelines used to be confidential, but have been declassified after a series of parliamentary questions from Brian Sedgemore, Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch.

While mainland police can only fire plastic bullets to prevent "serious risk of loss of life" when other methods of policing have been tried and failed, the security forces in Northern Ireland can use them to protect property or in the "detection of crime".

In England and Wales, a chief police officer or at the very least a superintendent must authorise the use of the bullets. In Northern Ireland, individual gunners may decide to take action "if they judge their actions are warranted". Even these lax guidelines are regularly flouted by the RUC and army, according to civil liberties groups. For example the Committee on the Administration of Justice, which monitors marches where plastic bullets are likely to be fired, says its observers have never once heard officers give the required warning before firing.

The Acpo review of guidelines was launched after a report last year from the Chief Inspector of Constabulary expressed concern over the RUC guidelines and said they should be changed to reflect precisely those used in England.

Ronnie Flanagan, the RUC Chief Constable, objected to that, but later accepted the Government's decision to announce a joint review by the RUC and Acpo. It has now emerged that the review is being led not by the RUC but by Acpo. Ms Mowlam has said she expects the army to take any changes into account.

The Independent reported exclusively in June that faulty plastic bullets were used in Northern Ireland for a year after it had been discovered that they were firing too fast. It also emerged that the faulty batch consisted of 284,500 bullets - more than twice the total fired over the previous 24 years.

Further pressure has been placed on the Government by a European Parliament paper published in April. It says the firing of plastic bullets in Northern Ireland last summer constituted excessive force and breached the UN code of conduct for law enforcers.

The report calls on parliament to renew its call for a ban on the use of plastic bullets in the EU, first made in May 1982.