RUC reopens case of boy killed by plastic bullet

Army in Ulster: Call for soldier to be charged with murder reveals unhealed scars while British troops train by fighting on a hi-tech front
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The Independent Online

Campaigners demanding a ban on the use of plastic bullets yesterday called for a murder charge to be laid against the soldier who fired at a boy of 10, killing him.

Nearly 20 years to the day after Stephen Geddis was hit during rioting in Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary have reopened the investigation because they have received new evidence.

A former soldier who watched the incident in a nationalist area of Belfast is believed to have approached police in England to give a new account which conflicts with statements from his colleagues.

Detectives reactivated enquiries after the soldier, who is understood to have been looking down from a watch-tower, told of the actions of his colleagues as they attempted to quell a riot in the Divis flats area.

The death of Stephen, three days after he was hit in the head, is only one of a litany of 17 deaths and countless injuries from rubber and plastic bullets that have long been a source of intense controversy.

A inquest into his death from a fractured skull on 30 August 1975, recorded a verdict of misadventure despite evidence that he had never been involved in the riot.

The boy had just returned from a six-week break in the US but was reluctant to mix with other children because he had picked up an American accent and feared that he would be teased.

Eventually, his father persuaded him to leave the house, just as the Army arrived to tackle a group of about 50 to 60 youngsters who had set fire to some mattresses.

Those who saw the incident maintain that he had not been part of the riot and was standing some way away when he was hit by a plastic bullet fired from about 40 metres - circumstances not contradicted at the inquest.

For the Geddis family, the reopening of the case, which they have known about since May, holds many painful memories. Stephen's brother, Joe, told of their anguish. "My mother has been watching the news reports about the investigation and she was crying. It brought it all back."

Yet he said he had no confidence that anyone would ever be brought to book, even though the family received undisclosed damages in 1979. The Ministry of Defence did not admit liability. "No one is going to jail, we know that. But we know the truth, the people know the truth and we just want the British Army to admit the truth that they opened fire for no reason and they opened fire indiscriminately."

Only one member of the security forces has been charged in connection with a death from a plastic bullet. Reserve Constable Nigel Hegarty stood trial for the manslaughter of Sean Downes, 22, in 1984, but was cleared.

Paddy Kelly, of the non-sectarian United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets, said the new inquiry was encouraging but there should also be a reinvestigation in the 16 other cases.

"Whoever fired the shot that killed Stephen should be charged with murder," she said. "The rules of engagement say they should only be fired at the body, plainly not the case. And only if there is a risk to life or property. Stephen Geddis was not even involved."