The north of Ireland's experience teaches us that civil disturbance cannot be solved by such military-style policing
A review of this year's summer riots has called for a new debate on the use of rubber and plastic bullets. In the review, chief inspector of constabulary Sir Denis O'Connor emphasises that the police already has powers to use live ammunition in certain circumstances, such as when arsonists are setting fire to occupied buildings. Why, some might say, not use that power more frequently in the future?
It's worth going through to the history books to remember why there is such anxiety about this subject on these isles. Rubber and plastic bullets were used extensively in the north of Ireland during the conflict, killing 17 people, eight of whom were children. There were no public disturbances at the time of these killings. Hundreds of people bear the physical and psychological scars ? scores are affected by life-diminishing injuries, restricting their mobility and life expectancy.
Plastic bullets were seen as the technology of political control. That the overwhelming majority of fatalities and survivors are of the Catholic nationalist tradition also gives an indication of the sectarian use of this weapon during the conflict by the then police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and the British army for which there was relative impunity. This legacy is ingrained within the psyche of the nationalist community and in part served to deepen, sustain and fuel the conflict, making political solutions more intractable.
Thankfully we have begun the journey of emerging from that chapter of our past. However, despite the political progress the new policing service here retains and has used plastic bullets recently. This runs contrary to the new political dispensations and efforts to create a more human rights-compliant police service.
When Sir Hugh Orde was chief constable of the new police service (PSNI) he stated publicly that those killed by plastic and rubber bullets were innocent and gave a commitment not to use them in public-order situations. This commitment was unacceptably short of the required ban and was regrettably not honoured.
The use of plastic bullets was often the cause of riots and public disorder rather than being a response to civil disturbances. Plastic bullets were the weapons of first choice as opposed to any progressive strategic and effective community-style policing approach.
People in the north of Ireland observed events in England's protests, where plastic bullets were thankfully not deployed, including the poll tax riots, the miners' strike and the recent riots. Common sense often prevailed, and situations were contained without the need to resort to violent armed force.
The recent report by the British home affairs committee stating that the mayor of London and the MET's acting commissioner believed plastic bullets should not be used, citing that their use would have been "inappropriate as well as dangerous", is a welcome development. In part, this is down to the awful legacy of their use in the north of Ireland.
However, they need to also take cognisance of the UN's committee against torture 1999 report into the use of plastic bullets in the north of Ireland, which deemed plastic bullets a "weapon of torture" not to be used. And in 2002 the UN's committee on the rights of the child called for their ban. The British parliamentary and House of Lords joint committee on human rights is still responding to these reports and criticisms. The reality is that plastic bullets violate human rights.
If the lessons of the north of Ireland are to be fully learned, then underlying tensions within communities that spill into civil disturbance cannot be fixed or addressed by deploying ineffective military-style policing tactics that are plastic bullets. This only serves to further alienate already marginalised communities; it entrenches and exacerbates existing problems that are merely symptoms of much deeper social, economic, justice and political issues that can only be addressed politically and socially.
Resulting injuries and fatalities are the only inevitable consequence of plastic bullets, as evidenced in the north of Ireland. This further divides the community from the police and government.
The actions of the police, possibly unlawful, have their origins in the more recent disturbances, not to mention endemic poverty and inequality. This was illustrated by Jim McCabe, whose wife Nora was deliberately shot with a plastic bullet fired by the RUC in Belfast in 1981 while walking to the shops and who later died.
The last thing that any community, including police and government, needs is another ingredient for disorder. Plastic bullets should never be an option and should be withdrawn altogether as an "alternative", otherwise there will always exist the potential for their use and mission-creep. They should banned in both jurisdictions.