Some Examples of Human Rights Abuses in Northern Ireland: The Use of Plastic Bullets and Strip Searches of Women

Posted By: March 29, 2013

Congressional Briefing Paper, April 1993
The Use of Plastic Bullets in Northern Ireland

I. Introduction

In 1975, the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) added plastic bullets to their arsenal of riot-control weapons deployed against the civilian population of Northern Ireland. Plastic bullets replaced rubber bullets, which were used from 1970-75. They are officially known as ‘baton rounds’ and are supposed to be non-lethal, minimum force weapons used to disperse crowds without causing serious injury to civilians and eliminating the threat of physical harm to security forces. When firing plastic bullets, soldiers and police are supposed to adhere to strict Rules of Engagement regarding long-range discharge and aim to the lower body, thereby minimizing the possibility of fatalities or serious injuries.

However, there is strong evidence of the deliberate misuse of plastic and rubber bullets in Northern Ireland, making them lethal weapons used in the violent suppression of political resistance and in creating an atmosphere of terror in daily life. From April 1972 to October 1989, 17 individuals, including 8 children, have died from rubber and plastic bullets shot in non-riot circumstances and at close-firing range to the head and upper body. Many adults and children have been critically injured or permanently maimed; many others have suffered extreme psychological stress. Significantly, all but one fatal victim of plastic bullets were Catholics. Statements taken in testimony assert that plastic bullets are systematically and routinely fired by security forces in Nationalist / Catholic neighborhoods as a means of intimidation and community control. Furthermore, in flagrant violation of legal rights, both relatives and victims are denied access to the facts and evidence of the shootings. Neither soldier nor policeman has been convicted for murder, maiming, or misuse of a weapon – it appears the security forces are unofficially granted immunity from prosecution.

Scientists, doctors, and munitions experts consider plastic bullets to be the most dangerous crowd control weapon in use world-wide. The British Government’s tolerance of the use of deadly plastic bullets is one of the most controversial, and widely condemned, aspects of security policy in Northern Ireland. Their callous disregard for human life presents another deeply-entrenched human rights abuse against the civilian population of Northern Ireland.

II. Precursors of the Plastic Bullet: Teak and Rubber ‘Baton Rounds’ A. Teak ‘Baton Rounds’ in Hong Kong

The utilization of ‘baton rounds’ as riot-control weapons originates in nationalist uprisings in British colonies during the past quarter century and the use of armed force to achieve political and social control. In the mid-1960s, ‘baton rounds’ were used to control rioters in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong during periods of intense labor strikes and anti-British protests. The original rounds, made of teak wood and over one inch in length, “combined the hard-hitting power of a truncheon with the advantage of being able to strike demonstrators at long range,” incurring less personal risk to the police (David Morgan.1982. “Plastic Bullets – lethal missiles that bring death and terror.” Irish News, April 21). During the riots of 1966-67, one demonstrator, a young girl, was killed, and hundreds of people were seriously injured by the sudden impact or splintering of the wooden projectiles. Hong Kong police and British Army units considered the ‘baton rounds’ a great success.

With perverse colonial logic, the teak ‘baton rounds’ fired at the Chinese in Hong Kong were considered “too dangerous” to use against political protestors in Northern Ireland (Liz Curtis. 1982 [Reprint 1989]. They Shoot Children: The Use of Rubber and Plastic Bullets in the North of Ireland, p. 14). [As we shall see, plastic bullets were forbidden in Britain because they were considered too dangerous, but, of course, are used in Northern Ireland]. Use of ‘baton rounds’ were claimed to be a necessary back-up to existing anti-riot weapons, such as CS gas and water cannons. Ironically, these measures often backfired on the security forces, with a gust of wind blowing the gas back or the supply of water running out. Authorities argued that a more efficient means of crowd control was necessary to disperse civilians during street riots or non-violent protests, but ensuring the personal safety of police and soldiers. As a result, the British Ministry of Defence embarked on a nine-month research project in Portadown, Northern Ireland, to develop an anti-riot weapon providing the power of maximal intimidation with the least tactical effort (ibid).

B. Rubber Bullets in West Belfast and Derry

In 1970, rubber bullets were introduced to the civilian population of Northern Ireland on the streets of West Belfast and Derry. The rubber bullet was specifically developed as a ‘minimum force’ weapon to provide the security forces greater leverage in dispersing crowds in riot situations. They also allowed greater accuracy in striking individuals while inflicting only minor injury. Benignly described as a “solid, blunt-nosed cylinder of rubber,” each bullet measured 5 3/4″ in length and 1 1/2″ in diameter, weighed 5 1/4 ounces, but was fired at a velocity of 160 mph (Eileen K. Metress and Seamus P. Metress. 1987. “The anatomy of plastic bullet damage and crowd control.” International Journal of Health Sciences, 17 (2): 33-342). Firing instructions stipulated that bullets were to be fired at the ground in front of a crowd, thereby causing the bullets to ricochet and strike people in the legs and lower body with minimal harm. They were not intended for firing at a range of less than 25 yards. To fire directly into a crowd would cause serious injury, but was permissible, if circumstances produced a life-threatening situation (ibid).

By 1974, an estimated 55,688 rubber bullets had been fired upon the civilians of Northern Ireland, causing death, disability and great distress. In 1971 alone, 23,000 bullets were fired at thousands of people during political protests against government policy legalizing internment without trial (Curtis 1982 [1989], p. 11). Rubber bullets fired by the security forces were responsible for the deaths of three people, including a child, in non- threatening circumstances during daylight hours or late at night. The first death from a rubber bullet occurred in April 1972. Francis Rowntree, an eleven year old boy walking home in West Belfast, was shot in the head by a British Army soldier in an armored car from a distance of 5-7 yards. Witnesses assert that the rubber bullet which struck him had been ‘doctored’ to include a battery. In July 1972, Tobias Molloy, age 18, was struck in the heart at point-blank range by soldiers at a British Army checkpoint who were firing upon a group of youths throwing stones. Witnesses indicate Tobias was not involved in the commotion. In May 1973, Thomas Friel was walking home with his brother and struck by a rubber bullet in the head, fired by a British Army soldier from a range of 25-30 yards. An earlier street disturbance had long quieted. Disability, as well as death, resulted from the deliberate and indiscriminate firing of rubber bullets in non-riot circumstances at close range. Consider the tragic blinding of Emma Groves, 51 years old and mother of 11 children, standing in her kitchen, playing an Irish rebel tune on the phonograph to protest the mass house arrest of residents in her housing estate in West Belfast. She was shot in the face by a British soldier, aiming through an open window, eight yards away. Emma Groves eyes were removed in the hospital and she later received an award of 35,000 pounds compensation. Similar events and alarming occurrences of severe disability and disfigurement were reported by surgeons at Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast from 1970-72. In a hospital survey of 90 patients (aged 7 to 67 years) who were treated for injuries sustained from rubber bullets, surgeons confirm that “injuries to the head and neck were frequent and severe” (Metress and Metress 1987). Clearly 80% of trauma cases involved skull fractures, facial fractures, ruptured eye globes, major brain damage, and damage to internal organs, as reported in the British Journal of Surgery in 1975 (ibid.). In the same period, many more suffered, and more lawsuits for damages settled.

By 1975, rubber bullets were withdrawn, apparently for humanitarian reasons. According to Jane’s Authoritative Weapons of 1976, mortality and disability rates were regarded as unacceptably high. However, the firing precision of the rubber bullet was in question. In theory, rubber bullets were guaranteed long-range accuracy up to 55 yards; in practice, the bullet became unstable at a range of 20 yards, often striking haphazardly due to lost stability and velocity (Ed Moloney. 1982. “From Hong Kong to Belfast: The progress of the rubber bullet.” Irish Times, April 24). The decision to replace rubber bullets with plastic ones is based in prolonging state-sponsored harassment, intimidation, and violence, rather than concerns for public safety.

III. Plastic Bullets: Towards a More Repressive Technology of Political Control

A. Deployment of a Deadlier Weapon

Plastic bullets were introduced as a riot-control weapon by the British Army in Northern Ireland in 1973 and became fully operational by 1975. Such bullets were not used elsewhere in the United Kingdom until ten years later. British Home Secretary, Mr. William Whitelaw, had forbidden their use in Britain during outbreaks of racial violence in the inner-city because such usage would “mean inflicting injury or even death on rioters” (Irish News, August 6, 1981, p. 4), a policy decision clearly underlining the colonial status of the state. A plastic bullet is a solid PVC cylinder which measures 4 1/2″ x 1 1/2 ” and weighs 4 3/4 ounces. The bullets are fired from a anti-personal gun, a grenade-launcher weapon which is 3 feet long. The bullet has an operational range of 36-72 yards, allowing for both greater range and accuracy. (1982. “A short history of the plastic bullet.” Fortnight, no. 182, July / August, p.4). According to the rules of engagement followed by security forces:

1. Baton rounds may be used to disperse a crowd when it is judged to be minimum and reasonable force in the circumstances.

2. The rounds must be fired at selected persons and not indiscriminately at the crowd. They should be aimed so that they strike the lower part of the target’s body directly (without bouncing).

3. The authority to use these round is delegated to the commander on the spot.

4. Rounds must be fired at a range of no less than 20 meters except when the safety of soldiers or others is seriously threatened (Metress and Metress 1987, p.335).

No mention is made of the fact that the projectile leaves the gun barrel at 200 mph. Research on blunt impact weapons by the U.S. Army Land Warfare Laboratory in the early 1970’s concluded that impact energies between 30-90 foot pounds is ‘dangerous,’ whereas’severe damage’ occurs if impact exceeds 90 foot pounds (ibid., p. 337). ‘Severe damage’ includes serious skin lacerations, massive skull fractures, rupture of the heart and kidney, fragmentation of the liver, and hemorrhages. Given that plastic bullets have a standard operational range of 36-72 yards, “when fired at a medium effectiveness range, their impact exceeds the severe damage limitation” (ibid.). In most cases, however, plastic bullets are fired at a distance of less than 15 yards, thus raising the level of kinetic energy to more than 210 foot pounds of blunt force. With good reason, members of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science condemn plastic bullets as the most dangerous ‘crowd control’ weapons in service with security forces in the Western world (Jonathan Rosenhead. 1985. “Plastic bullets – a reasonable force?” New Scientist, October 17, pp. 26-27).

B. Greater Accuracy, Indeed: Deaths & Injuries from Plastic Bullets

Since the British Army and RUC began firing plastic bullets in 1975, fourteen people have died, including seven children. People were killed in circumstances in which little or no danger was present to the Army or police. Over the years, four deaths have occurred in the month of August, when annual rallies are held to mark the introduction of internment without trial in 1971. In 1981 alone, seven people were killed in the streets and homes of Belfast and Derry during the spring and summer months when ten hunger strikers died in the Maze prison. Since 1982, four more people have died from plastic bullets, including another child and the first Protestant casualty. Fourteen people have died as a result of shots fired to the head and chest from close range, in clear violation of the Army’s Rules of Engagement to be followed by security forces. As witnesses and inquests assert, most victims of the plastic bullets are innocent bystanders, caught in the sights of deliberate, deadly intent. Yet, criminal charges are rarely brought against army and police personnel. Accusations of police cover-ups and perjured testimony abound. Generous compensation is offered to victim’s families on the condition of ‘no liability’ to the security forces (Curtis 1982 [1989], pp. 30-32). Their crimes go unpunished.

The first casualty of a plastic bullet occurred in August 1975. Ten year-old Stephen Geddis was struck on the head with bullet fired by a British Army soldier. At the time of his shooting, a group of boys between the ages of seven and thirteen were stoning soldiers. A soldier pursued the boys and fired at Stephen from 40 yards. Witnesses testify that Stephen was not involved in throwing stones. There was no prosecution in this case (Curtis 1982 [1989], pp. 11, 21).

From 1976-1980, 13,004 plastic bullets were fired by security forces in non-riotsituations (Curtis 1982 [1989], p. 38). Two more young people were killed In October 1976, Brian Stewart, age 13, was hit in the face by a plastic bullet as he stood on a corner near his home, talking with some friends, in West Belfast. The bullet was fired from a distance of 10 yards by a British Army soldier on foot patrol. Witnesses assert there was no rioting at the time. At the inquest, the jury returned an open verdict. In a later civil action, Brian’s mother was offered compensation, which she refused on grounds that it would wrongly condone her son’s death (ibid., pp.13, 21). In August 1980, on the anniversary of internment, Michael Donnely, age 21, was hit in the chest by a plastic bullet fired by a British soldier from a distance of 15-20 yards. Michael was a social worker coming home from duty at a community center in West Belfast where he worked with Catholic and Protestant youth. No street disturbance was in progress, although there had been earlier in the evening. At the inquest, the Judge accepted the facts of the case as presented and awarded damages to the family of Michael Donnely. However, the soldier was not prosecuted (ibid., pp. 14, 21).

In April-May 1981, the number of plastic bullets fired rose significantly. In just two months, four people were killed and more than 18,000 bullets were fired by the British army and RUC during rioting, stone-throwing, and bin-lid protests following the deaths of hunger strikers in the H-Block prison. In April, Paul Whitters of Derry, age 15, was struck in the head and killed by a plastic bullet fired by a RUC policeman on foot patrol. He had been throwing stones at the RUC along with some other boys. As the other boys moved down the street, Paul stood alone and was shot from a distance of 5-7 yards. He was found guilty of the “most serious” crime of throwing stones at the inquest following his death. The jury could not produce a unanimous verdict due to inconsistencies regarding Paul’s involvement and discrepancies in testimony by the police. There was no prosecution (ibid., pp. 15, 21).

In May 1981, Julie Livingstone of West Belfast, age 14, was killed while returning home from an errand with a friend. She was passing by a group of women and children protesting the death of a hunger striker by banging bin-lids on the street. Julie was shot in the head from a distance of 7 yards by a British Army soldier in an armored car; he was shooting to disperse the protestors (ibid., p. 17). In the same week, another young girl was killed in West Belfast. Carol Ann Kelly, age 12, was hit by a plastic bullet fired by another British Army soldier in an armored car. She was returning home from the store with a carton of milk when she was struck from a distance of 5-7 yards. There was no disturbance in the area at the time (ibid., p. 18). In Derry a few days later, Henry Duffy, age 45, a widower with seven children, was killed by a plastic bullet as he returned home from a pub. He was shot in the head and chest by British army and / or RUC men during the severe rioting following the death of a fourth hunger striker (ibid., p. 19). Regarding the young girls, the inquest found Julie and Carol Ann to be “innocent victims.” In Mr. Duffy’s case, his death was ruled a “misadventure,” as no witnesses were present and no evidence was given at his inquest. There was no prosecution in any of three cases (ibid., p. 21).

Three more people were killed by plastic bullets by the time the last hunger striker died in August 1981. In July 1981, Nora McCabe of West Belfast, age 30 and mother of three children, was shot in the head while walking to the store to get cigarettes during a protest. Youths were throwing stones following the death of a hunger striker. A RUC policemen in an armored car fired at her from a distance of 6 feet. At the inquest, a film of the incident taken by a Canadian crew was presented as evidence. The film disputed the testimony of the RUC. Mrs. McCabe was found to be an “innocent party” and damages were paid to her family. There was no prosecution (ibid., pp. 21, 22). Peter Doherty of West Belfast, age 40, was shot in the head while standing in the kitchen of his home. Sporadic rioting was in progress further down the street and petrol bombs hurled by. He warned his friends to stay away from the windows when he was struck by a plastic bullet fired by a British Army soldier. No one present at the scene was ever questioned or charged with throwing anything from the window. At his inquest the jury could not agree on whether Mr. Doherty was throwing petrol bombs from the window, as the soldier alleged. Again, there was no prosecution of the soldier (ibid., pp. 21, 23; Denis Faul and Raymond Murray.1982. Plastic Bullets-Plastic Government, pp. 2-3). In August 1981, on the 10th anniversaryof internment, Peter McGuiness of West Belfast was killed by a plastic bullet. Peter, his wife, and a friend had just emerged from their house to calm a group of youths throwing petrol bombs nearby. The youths fled as two RUC armored vehicles rolled up the street. A policeman shot Peter McGuiness in the chest at point-blank range. There was no prosecution (Curtis 1982 [1989], pp. 21, 25; Faul and Murray 1982, pp. 3-4).

Since 1982, there have been four more deaths due to plastic bullets. Again, a child became a victim. In April 1982, Stephen McConomy of Derry, age 11, was killed by a plastic bullet fired at point-blank range by a British Army soldier in an armored vehicle. Stephen was present on the scene when a small group of young boys were taunting soldiers in an armored vehicle, playfully attaching an Irish flag to the hood of the saracen and hitting it with sticks and stones. Numerous witnesses testified that the soldiers kept up the banter with the boys. Without any immediate danger present, a shot was fired which hit Stephen in the back of the head and pitched his small body many feet away. He died in the hospital from severe brain damage and a cracked skull (Faul and Murray 1982, pp. 5-13). At the inquest following his death, the jury found that Stephen was not throwing stones, the soldiers were not in “any great danger,” and the gun used was faulty (Curtis 1982 [1989], pp. 21,37). As expected, Mrs. McConomy, was tersely informed there would be no prosecution in the death of her son (Faul and Murray 1982, p. 11).

As the decade continued, three more people fell victim to plastic bullets fired by the security forces. In August 1984, on the 13th anniversary of internment, Sean Downes of Belfast, age 22, was killed while attending a Republican rally in the city with his wife and baby daughter. The large crowd at the rally was seated on the ground to demonstrate their peaceful intentions to the RUC, who stood at armed guard. When an Irish Northern Committee spokesman, Martin Galvin, who was banned from the United Kingdom appeared on the speaker’s platform, the RUC charged the crowd. The panic-filled scene of indiscriminate firing by the RUC was witnessed by numerous reporters and recorded by television cameras covering the event. As a journalist for The Times of London described:

[The RUC ] fired plastic bullets into the air and at almost point blank range as they ran over the crowd, pulling people out of the way and then began driving Land Rovers into the screaming and hysterical mass. Appeals for calm went unheard as plastic bullets whizzed around. People cowered on the road, clutching children and trying to cover their heads (Richard Ford quoted in Curtis 1982 [1989], p. 37).

Another journalist reported that Sean Downes was “shot in the heart in full view of the photographer from London’s Daily Mail (Sally Belfrage. 1984. Police Riot in Belfast: Day of the Plastic Death.”The Nation. September 1, pp. 137-38). Despite hundreds of witnesses to this shooting, no civilian was called to offer testimony at the trial of the RUC reserve constable who was charged with manslaughter. The constable was acquitted in a no-jury court (Curtis 1982 [1989], p. 37). The incident of Sean Downes death marked the first time criminal charges were brought against a member of the security forces responsible for a plastic bullet killing (ibid.).

The death of Keith White augured another first for the security forces: he was the first Protestant victim of a plastic bullet. In March 1986 on Easter Monday, Keith White of Lurgan participated in a march through Portadown with the Apprentice Boys, a Loyalist organization. The marchers were prevented from entering a Nationalist area by the police. Consequently, the boys began to throw stones. In another report, however, it is alleged they were rioting and threw petrol bombs (Metress and Metress 1987, p. 341). In any event, Keith, age 20, was shot at point blank range by policeman on foot patrol. His death was condemned by Loyalist and Nationalist groups (Curtis 1982 [1989], p. 38). The most recent death by a plastic bullet occurred in October 1989 and struck a Catholic boy. Seamus Duffy, age 15, was shot from a RUC armored truck in Belfast (Funnemark and Borg 1990, p. 39). There have been no deaths since then.

There is adamant agreement that the routine abuse of plastic bullets by the security forces is “a source of fear, psychological stress, physical damage, and death to the civilian population of nationalist neighborhoods” (Metress and Metress 1987, p. 338). Gruesome accounts of people suffering with the destructive effects of plastic bullets are documented by community activists (Curtis 1982 [1989], pp. 22-35; Faul and Murray 1982). However, accurate counts of those injured by plastic bullets are difficult to come by. For example, From May 5th 1981 (the day hunger striker Bobby Sands died) to August 1981, Belfast hospitals recorded 161 serious injuries; 110 people received treatment for plastic bullet injuries and, 31 people suffered head injuries (Curtis 1982 [1989], p. 22). Yet, it is common knowledge that victims “don’t go to the hospital in Belfast unless their lives depend on it because those who do are charged with rioting in order to justify their having been shot (Belfrage 1984, p.137). Many hundreds, possibly thousands, suffer in silence, untreated and uncompensated for their debilitating injuries. As Jonathan Rosenhead of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science said in contrasting the lot of the living to the dead:

They are the most tragic victims in a grotesque cavalcade of injuries, only a fraction of which are ever reported in the media. Eviscerated eyes, smashed hands, triple fractures of the legs, head wounds requiring 40 stitches, injuries to the kidney, liver, groin, and throat (Curtis 1982 [1989], p. 22). The horrific injuries inflicted upon men, woman, and children by plastic bullets constitutes a human rights abuse of great proportions.

IV. International Condemnation of Plastic Bullets and Britain’s Hostile Response In concluding a page of written testimony concerning her young nephew’s death, the aunt of Stephen McConomy, 11th victim of a plastic bullet, stated that his death would have been “difficult enough if he was knocked down by a car. But plastic bullets are meant to kill” (Faul and Murray 1982, p. 13). Her sentiment regarding the deadly nature of plastic bullets is shared by tribunals investigating the abuses and numerous international human rights organizations calling for a ban on plastic bullets in Northern Ireland.

In 1981, an International Tribunal of Inquiry into Deaths and Injuries by Plastic Bullets was convened in Belfast by the Association for Legal Justice to investigate the human rights abuses caused by plastic bullets. The five-member tribunal included lawyers, a physician, and a neuropsychologist from the United States, France and Britain. Upon hearing testimony by lawyers, doctors, victims and eye-witnesses, the panel concluded the plastic bullet is a “lethal weapon” and its “widespread indiscriminate” use is “tacitly tolerated by the authorities.” The Tribunal recommended

1. banning plastic bullets in Northern Ireland, 2. carrying out “urgent inquiries” into the deaths of four recent victims with publication of “detailed findings,” and 3. formation of another International Commission if a ban was not imposed.

(Conclusion of the Tribunal, August 3-4, 1981). In May 1982, the European Parliament imposed a ban on the use of plastic bullets in the European Economic Community; only British and Unionist members dissented (“New bid on plastic bullets,” The Irish Post (London), October 15, 1988).

In October 1982, the Second International Tribunal was convened after three more violent deaths by plastic bullets. The eight-member panel reconfirmed the original findings, noting that a plastic bullet is a weapon of “disproportionate strength” in situations of “unlawful assembly.” The Tribunal also severely admonished the local legal system for failing to prosecute offenses, investigate civilian complaints, or provide redress to victims (Conclusion of the Tribunal, October 16, 1982).

Condemnation of plastic bullets resounded near and far. In July 1983, a group of Northern Catholic Bishops called for the withdrawal of plastic bullets, calling their usage “morally indefensible” (untitled document, n.d.). Later in 1983, the International League for Human Rights raised the issue before the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, called for a ban on plastic bullets and an inquiry into their abuse by law-enforcement authorities in Northern Ireland [Brief prepared by the Organization of Concerned Teachers. E/CN.4/ Sub.2/ 1983 NGO/ 11. ]. Most recently, Helsinki Watch added its voice to the international cry against the savage abuse of plastic bullets (In defiance of international pressure to discontinue the use of plastic bullets as a riot-control weapon, the British Government is now engaged in a new policy of terror. Instead of acknowledging the atrocities of this long-standing human rights violation, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) proposes replacing plastic bullets and riot-control guns with similar weapons (1991. “Plastic bullets to be replaced.” Irish Times, November 10). With ethnocentric concern, the MoD decision rests on preventing burn injuries to the security forces and averting total destruction of the weapon (“Safer guns for plastic killers. Republican News, October 17). In recent years, The MoD halted production of plastic bullets when it was discovered that the thermoplastic material had a tendency to get trapped in the barrel, causing a breech explosion. The bullet manufacturer, Brocks Explosives of Glasgow, Scotland, admits a “design problem.” Stock-piled plastic bullets are currently in use. The MoD has admitted also that plastic bullet launchers used by security forces for nearly two decades are “plagued by long-running and dangerous design faults,” causing misfires and explosions. The firing weapons are rigged from WW I army surplus signal pistols with a welded stock and rifle barrel. Target accuracy is diminished due to faulty sightings. The MoD plans to substitute a “lighter, faster, and more accurate” model, made by Heckler and Koch, a German subsidiary of British Aerospace (Bill Goodwin. 1991. “MoD admits dangerous defects in riot guns.” The Engineer, October 10, p.6-7). Spokes-woman Clara Reilly of the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets, based in Belfast, describes this policy shift as “adding insult to injury” (1991. “New plastic bullet storm grows.” Irish News, October 11).

V. Conclusion In attempting to prevent the deployment of a more efficient weapon of violent political suppression and social control against the civilian population of Northern Ireland, The Irish National Caucus asks all Members of Congress to write to the British Ambassador in Washington, DC, demanding that the British Government immediately desist from this basic violation of human rights in Northern Ireland.

(INC Brief/Plastic Bullets/ð of 11)

Strip Searches of Women as a Form of Sanctioned Terrorism

One of the human rights abuses of particular concern in Northern Ireland is the practice of strip searching women political prisoners. This degrading act is a blatant exercise in sexual abuse, psychological terror, and political repression. As Fr. Raymond Murray, former prison chaplain at Armagh Prison, where most of the abuses occurred, contends, “This disgraceful practice offends the dignity of the human person, which is enshrined in all international codes of human right” (The Irish News, June 7, 1985). Northern Ireland prison authorities counter that ‘reception searches’ are necessary for ‘security reasons,’ although in the past decade nothing has ever been found to warrant continuation of this practice (cf. Fr. Denis Faul, 1983. The Stripping Naked of Women prisoners in Armagh Prison, 1982-83). In so doing, they have ignored the censure of human rights activists and the conditions of international agreements regarding fair treatment of prisoners.

The institution of strip searches as official policy in 1982 constitutes a further erosion of human rights amidst increasing subjugation in Northern Ireland. Since the imposition of Direct Rule of Northern Ireland by the British Government, authorized by the Emergency Provisions Act of 1972, an alarming range of repressive measures has been sanctioned by the state. These measures include internment without trial , single–judge courts without juries, powers of detention and search, and the designation of criminal status to political prisoners. Under the Prevention of terrorism Act (PTA) of 1974, nationalist organizations were banned and internal exile imposed on numerous citizens; in 1984 under the PTA, time constraints regarding police detention were relaxed. Removal of the right to silence of persons detained by British forces was sanctioned in 1988. In addition, censorship through government control of the media increased in the late 1980’s and an official ban on broadcasting statements made by political organizations was decreed in 1989. [cf. Bjorn Cato Funnemark and Arne Borg, July 1990, “Irish Terrorism or British Colonialism? The Violation of Human Rights in Northern Ireland, “Norwegian Helsinki Committee of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.] … And all this in the context of pervasive, systematic, anti-Catholic discrimination.

II. Strip Searches as Official Practice

The practice of strip searching women political prisoners was introduced as a routine search procedure by the Northern Ireland Office in November 1982, in response to an isolated incident involving two court house keys found in the cell of two young women, who were non-political prisoner. In 1983, the practice was defended by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland responding to tabled questions in the house of Commons: “The implications of this breach of security were carefully considered and it was decided to replace the routine rub-down searches with strip searches” (Faul 1983, p.6) According to published reports and personal statements, strip searches take place every time a woman leaves and re-enters prison (Amnesty International, 1991, Women in the Front Line, p.22) The reprehensible practice of forced strip searches applies to all women, whether Catholic or Protestant, young or old, pregnant or menstruating (Irish American Women’s Conference 1985).

In the past decade, the majority of searches involved women remand prisoners awaiting trial in Armagh Prison. Following their weekly, half-hour visits to the Armagh Court House, located 200 yards from the prison facility, to which the prisoners were driven in a sealed vehicle under and escort by Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers, the women were ordered to undergo a strip search. When women refused to comply with a procedure they considered “immoral, humiliating, and degrading, ” they were forcibly restrained and stripped by prison staff, then visually and internally examined. Afterwards, they were often charged with assault and punished with solitary confinement for their resistance [Letter from Republican Remand POW, Irish News, March 25, 1983 (reprinted in Faul 1983); Statement of a remand prisoner, December 1983]. Strip searches continued after the transfer of women political prisoners from Armagh to a new, high–security prison in Maghaberry, County Antrim, “Six woman hold a naked woman pinned down on the floor,” Northern Ireland Report (4), May 29, 1992). Strip searches have been conducted thousands of times.

III. Public Condemnation of Strip Searching in the 1980’s

In Northern Ireland, public outrage against the strip searches was vented by the prisoners, their families, and the clergy but vigorously defended by the Northern Ireland Office (cf. “The stripping of women prisoners in Armagh goal,” Irish News, December 22, 1983; “Strip search book ‘whitewash’ – priest,” Irish News, June 7, 1985). In early 1983, “Help the Prisoners” Committee condemned the strip searches of women political prisoners as a violation of the “privacy, dignity, and integrity of the human body.” Given modern technology in use at maximum security prisons for maintaining security and discipline, e.g., metal detectors and scanning equipment, the Committee argued “there is no justification for the violation of human dignity” (Statement, March 30, 1983).

In the U.S. Congress, Rita Kelly Mullan, Executive Director of the Irish National Caucus, spearheaded a very strong campaign to expose this awful abuse of Irish women political prisoners. Again in the U.S., the Irish American Women’s Congress protested that strip searching constituted a “degrading and inhumane tool of repression and state control” (1985). Back in Northern Ireland, as assaults against women prisoners continued in the following years, ‘Help the Prisoners’ Committee again denounced the practice (January 12, 1984). In the words of Frs. Denis Faul and Raymond Murray, two Roman Catholic priests who exposed the torture of male political prisoners under interrogation in Northern Ireland, “A prison sentence entails the restriction of liberty, not loss of basic human rights” (quoted in The Irish News, June 7, 1985).

IV. Strip Searching as a Human Rights Violation

Strip searching is a means of brutal and institutionalized violence directed against political prisoners. In Northern Ireland, strip searching is routinely practiced in violation o international human rights covenants regarding minimum standards of treatment for all prisoners. The practice clearly violates Article 5 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:

“No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Furthermore, the practice of strip searching prisoners is a serious beach of Article 3 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ratified by the United Kingdom in 1951), which provides that:

“No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

In 1987, Amnesty International (AI) condemned strip searching as a human rights abuse on the grounds that it “constitutes ill treatment when it is carried out with the intention of humiliating or degrading prisoners” (AI Report, 1987).

In 1991 AI issued a report, entitled Women in the Front Line, condemning human rights violatons committed against women in the form of rape and sexual abuse (including fondling, verbal humiliation, excessive body searches, and other intentionally degrading treatment). With regard to the treatment of women political prisoners in Northern Ireland, Amnesty International expressed its concern that the strip searches in Armagh Prison were conducted with the “deliberate intention of degrading or humiliating the women” (p.24). This international human rights organization holds the state fully responsible for acts of torture, violence and ill-treatment used to coerce, humiliate, punish and intimidate women in custody. Furthermore, Amnesty International asserts that through the use of sexual violence and abuse by military forces to punish women involved in insurgency operations,

[t]he indiscriminate use of force of torture and ill-treatment also helps create a permanent sense of fear and insecurity, against which the capacity for independent political action can be dulled or thwarted. The official failure to condemn or punish rape gives it overt political sanction, which allows rape and other forms of ill-treatment to become tools of military strategy” (AI newsletter, February 1992, p.4).

In this regard, it is clear that the persistence of forced strip searches and visual examination of women political prisoners in Northern Ireland as officially-sanctioned policy by the British Government is both a means of penal oppression and a tool of ‘political’ strategy.

V. Recent Abuses and Further Condemnation

Despite a decade of resistance and international protest against the strip searching of women political prisoners in Northern Ireland, the practice continues unabated. In May 1991, a woman political prisoner returning from a compassionate visit was forcibly strip searched, verbally and physically attacked by prison staff. Her case was investigated after lodging a formal complaint with the prison governor. Prison authorities have refused to make the result of the inquiry known to her (Sherry 1992, p.5). However, the prison administration and NIO have made explicit their intention to continue the forcible strip-searches of prisoners.

The most recent incident of strip searching occured on March 2, 1992 at Maghaberry Prison, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. On this day, marking International Women’s Day, women political prisoners were told there would be a strip search of the prison and all prisoners would be subject to a mass strip search. When the women objected, they were informed by prison staff that any resistance would result in loss of remission and solitary confinement. In a statement concerning the events of that day, the women contend:

What happened over the next 10 hours can only be described as sexual, physical, and psychological torture. Gangs of screws [guards] dressed in riot gear and armed with batons and shields entered the wings. A gang of screws entered a cell and set upon the defenseless women inside, in each case up to 16 screws. The POW’s were seized and dragged to the floor; their faces pushed to the floor so that they couldn’t see their assailants and their mouths were covered to stifle their screams. Once inside, the screws began to remove the women’s clothes until she was totally naked. Every other woman in the goal could hear the attack as it took place, so in actual fact each woman spent the entire day listening to comrades being sexually abused before and after their turn came (Statement of Prisoners, March 2, 1992).

Twenty-one Irish women political prisoners who resisted and defended themselves were forcibly stripped, beaten and sexually assaulted by male and female prison staff. All the women suffered severe cuts and bruising; one woman suffered a severe facial injury requiring immediate hospitalization. In the aftermath of this violence, the women were charged with ‘breaches of prison rule,’ resulting in the loss of “privileges.” Disciplinary action taken against the women for resisting the brutal assault included 42 days loss of remission, 28 days loss of afternoon yard, 21 days loss of remission and 3 days solitary confinement (Committee Against Strip Searching, 1992).

The women political prisoners assert that strip searches are part of a larger agenda of “degradation, control, and submission,” directed against them, rather than prison security (Statement of Prisoners, March 2, 1992). In a letter of solidarity to their Republican sisters in Northern Ireland, two Irish political prisoners, who have been strip-searched “hundreds of times” during their seven years of imprisonment in England, write of the harrowing effects of forcible strip searches on the mind and body:

Strip searching is violence in itself. Even when not carried out using physical force the threat of pysical force is ever present. The psychological effects are many, women are left feeling violated and degraded. They are left fearing the next assault and with nightmares with the last one. (Letter, April 15, 1992)

While aware of the “potentially disempowering impact of these assaults” (ibid.), the women political prisoners vow to maintain their dignity and uphold their beliefs. In a poignant letter to her “Mum and Dad” the day after the assault, one woman wrote, “They’ll never silence us, nor will they break us,” despite the pain, anguish, and punishment the women endured (Letter from a Republican prisoner, March 3, 1992, Maghaberry Prison, Co. Antrim).

As forcible strip-searching is an affront to the women themselves, so it is to their families. Shortly after the attack at Maghaberry Prison, family members of the 21 violated women expressed their outrage in an open letter to the community. In an impassioned appeal to respect the right of human dignity for their daughters, wives, and sisters, the families wrote:

All the women resisted this degradation of their bodies and we are proud they did so. We do not wish to see our relatives injured in any shape or form, but we respect and support our relatives’ right to defend themselves against this cynical attempt by the NIO and prison administration to humiliate and dehumanize them.

The families’ public condemnation of the NIO and prison authorities for condoning the brutal strip-searching of the women prisoners continued and echoed throughout the community. The mothers of two Republican Prisoners, decried the mass strip-searching at Maghaberry as “humiliating.” One of the women, whose 21 year-old daughter was forcibly forced strip searched, flatly declared, “Strip searching is legalized sexual abuse” (The Irish Post, June 27, 1992). Both mothers vowed to continue their protest against the strip searching on inmates at Maghaberry prison and elsewhere. In support of the women prisoners and their families, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey maintained, “The British government really wants to penalize the community. The first thing they do is penalize the prisoners. They want to isolate the community, saying there will be no concessions and that the prisoners are criminals” (Quoted in the Irish Echo, April 8-14, 1992, p. 5).

Protest against the searches was voiced by organized opposition in Ireland, the U.K., and the U.S.A. The Irish Women’s Defence Campaign condemned the strip searches for the “ferocity and vindictiveness with which they are carried out.” In Britain, Labour Pary MP’s from Sheffield and Birmingham pledged to ban the practice of strip searches which they regard as an “abuse of power.” The British-Irish Rights Watch group recommended that international attention be focused on a “practice that breaks human rights conventions, to which Britain is a signatory.” The United Campaign Against Strip Searches publicized its demands in the U.S. Congress to embarrass Britain into abandoning the searches (all cited in The Irish Post, June 27, 1992). In April 1992, a petition addressed to Sir Robin Renwick, British Ambassador to the United States, condemning the Maghaberry incident and the continued practice of strip-searching, was circulated by Robert Borski (D-PA), U.S. House of Representatives, and signed by 43 members of the 102nd Congress.

In response to the wave of protest concerning the mass strip search against the women political prisoners at Maghaberry Prison, the Northern Ireland Office defended the practice of strip searching, claiming it is “carried out sensitively” and “generally without incident” (The Irish Post, June 27, 1992). The testimony cited here challenges such assertions. On the contrary, for the past decade women political prisoners in Northern Ireland have been subject to the state-sponsored violence of forcible strip searches, which are widely condemned as sexual abuse and psychological terror, conducted in the name of political repression.

VI. Conclusions

The Irish National Caucus urges Members of Congress to continually monitor this extremely important human rights issue. They should regularly contact the U.S. State Department and the British Ambassador in Washington, D.C. to protest this basic violation of human rights. Also write to: Prison Regimes Branch Northern Ireland Office DonDonald House Stormont County Antrim, Northern Ireland

þBibliography – Human Rights: Specific Abuses: Strip Searching

Amnesty International. 1992. Against Their Will: Rape and Sexual Abuse in Custody. AI Newsletter, February.

________________. 1991. Women in the Front Line. London: AI Publications.

Borski, Robert. 1992. Letter to the Honorable Sir Robin Renwick. April.

__________. 1992. Letter to Congressional Colleagues with Signed Petition. April 8.

Carrol, Ailish. 1992. Letter to Parents. Maghaberry Prison, Co. Antrim, NI. March 3, 1992.

Committee Against Strip Searching. 1992. Stop Strip Searches: Strip Searching is legalized rape. Pamphlet written by families of women prisoners at Maghaberry Prison.

Fairweather, Eileen, Roisin McDonough and Melanie McFadyean. 1984. Only the Rivers Run Free: Northern Ireland, The Women’s War. London and Sydney: Pluto Press.

Faul, Fr. Denis. 1983a. The Stripping Naked of Women Prisoners in Armagh Prison, 1982-83. Dungannon, NI: Help the Prisoners Committee.

__________. 1983b. “The stripping of women prisoners in Armagh Goal. Irish News, December 22.

Faul, Fr. Denis and Fr. Raymond Murray. n.d. The Castlereagh File: Torture in Ireland.

Feldman, Allen. 1991. Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Foley, Dylan. 1992. “Words of Warning: Devlin McAliskey says danger of ‘intifada’ in Northern Ireland.” Irish Echo, April 8-14, p.5.

Help the Prisoners. 1983. “Strip Searches.” Statement issued 30 March.

_____________. 1984. Press statement regarding strip searches.

Irish American Women’s Congress. 1985. “Stop Strip Searches in Armagh.”

Letter From Ella & Martina. 1992. Durham, England. Dated from Maghaberry Prison, April 15, 1992.

Letter from POW’s Maghaberry. 1992. Maghaberry Prison, Co. Antrim, NI. Date obscured.

McArdle, Mary. 1992. Letter to Fr. Murray. Maghaberry Prison, Co. Antrim, NI. April 13, 1992.

Sherry, Irene. 1992. “Six women hold a naked woman pinned down on the floor.” Northern Ireland Report 4, May 29.

Untitled. 1985. “Strip search book ‘whitewash’ -priest. Irish News, June 7.

______. 1992. “Strip-Searches, an abuse of power. The Irish Post, June 27.

______. 1992. “Protest to go on.” The Irish Post, October 17. Their writings include: The Hooded Men: British Torture in Ireland (1971); The Flames of Long Kesh, 15-16 October, 1974 and The Castlereagh File: Torture in Ireland (n.d.) In 1978, the British Government was found guilty and censured by the European Council of Human Rights for cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in the interrogation procedures used by police and military against Irish Catholic prisoners (Irish News, December 22, 1983).

In a related matter, the AI February 1992 Newsletter cites the case of four women arrested in Northern Ireland in 1991 and who were beaten and sexually abused while held at the R.U.C.’s Castlereagh interrogation center. Another report of sexual harrassment and intimidation by security forces can be found in Northern Ireland Report (4), 1992.

Further allegations of mistreatment during interrogation and detention are found in Amnesty International Report: 1992. The United Nations Committee against Torture concluded in November 1991 that Great Britain “may be inviolation of its international obligations to prevent ill-treatment and torture in Northern Ireland” (AI, June 1992, p. 35).

INC Briefing /Strip Searches/ð of 9

“The INC Briefing” INC Briefing violations occurred physical INC Briefing Congress in violation and harassment , Father Seán McManus, President of the Irish National Caucus, Friends of Ireland and Robin Renwick, April 1992. Letter to Congressional Colleagues with Signed Petition.