Plastic bullets - time for justice
Last week it was revealed that the rules for firing plastic
bullets are less strict in the Six Counties than in Britain. Sinn
Féin Councillor Chrissie McAuley remembers visiting the family of
one young victim as his life ebbed away
``Plastic bullets were fired by an army patrol in Derry today at a
hostile crowd in the Bogside area,'' drolled the TV commentator.
``One of the rioters was seriously injured and taken to hospital.''
My heart sank again, knowing from experience that everything
about the report needed to be treated with scepticism given the
numbers of innocent people being targeted, injured and killed
with plastic bullets.
Two days later the corridor leading to the intensive care unit of
Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital stretched before me. It was on
occasions like this that I wished to God the conflict would just
go away or, more honestly, that I could just walk away.
I pushed open the double doors. Beyond, people were either
sitting together in groups, talking quietly, or standing alone
with their thoughts and feelings. They leaned up against walls or
sat looking at their joined hands or, crouched over, stared down
at their toes. The one thing they shared was a stomach-sick
anxiety for the loved ones in the unit.
My eyes searched for a woman called Marie but it was my ears
which picked out her lilting Derry accent. She was a very petite
woman who had her dark hair tightly pulled back into a pony-tail.
She was talking to a woman and a man who, by the sound of their
dialect and conversation, were probably relatives.
I blundered into their lives by asking ``Excuse me, Are you
Stephen McConomy's people?''
Within the next few hours, I traversed the terrain in human
relationships from stranger to friend. They didn't know anyone in
Belfast. The past two days since Stephen was shot in the back of
the head by a plastic bullet, had been a long and lonely
nightmare for the whole family.
In talking to them about the circumstances of the shooting it was
clear that Stephen's story needed telling to the world.
The news from the neuro-surgeons was bleak. ``No point in
operating''. There was nothing substantial left of his brain
responses to operate on. The back of his head had been blown off,
indicating a discharge of the lethal plastic bullet weapon at
point black range. In other words, the soldier in question must
have been within a few yards of his young 11-year-old target.
Marie was quiet for a while as I asked a few questions about what
had happened. Her brother Michael and sister Rhonda did most of
the talking. Every few minutes I could feel her eyes looking at
me as if she was searching for a purpose to speak. I knew that
particular look from the relatives of others who had been injured
or killed. They do not want to speak about what happened because
it is too painful in the recounting; so they tend to say nothing
unless it is to say the things they think others want them to
heard. Silly things like ``I'm fine, thank you'' or ``It's good of
you to come''.
I remember I had been talking about the fear nationalist parents
have of their children being hit by plastic bullets when Marie
stirred as if out of a dream and asked me about my children. Did
I have a son? I was nervous telling her about him because for
some irrational reason I felt guilty that he was OK, unlike
Suddenly she looked at me intensely and asked if I would
photograph Stephen. She said she wanted to let people decide
whether her little boy, the eldest of three sons, and the
brightest in his class deserved the death sentence for being a
child playing too close to an army saracen at the wrong time. She
wanted to know did the world agree with a heavily-armed
professional soldier when he said he believed his life was at
risk by the proximity of Stephen and his friend tending a
makeshift fire at the side of the road.
Taking a photograph was something I had thought about raising
with the family but had decided against as it would be too
Now, with Marie looking at me for a positive response, my stomach
rose and fell like the stormy sea waves painted on the corridor
outside. I was anxious about the prospect of raising her
expectations only to fail for some technical reason or worse
still, an error on my part, in taking the photograph.
We also had the hospital authorities to contend with. Over the
years, there had been numerous TV documentaries made which
charted the near death injuries and followed the road to recovery
of members of the British Army and RUC. Apparently the Health
Board had no difficulty facilitating such programmes.
We decided to do it.
I left the hospital briefly and returned with a camera.
Marie told the nurse, who looked at me quizzically, that I was
with her and motioned me to go forward. Marie was determined to
carry through what was probably the last maternal act she could
render for her son. And so, with my heart pounding into my ears
and a strange sense that this was a movie I was watching, I
walked with her into the quietness of Stephen's ward.
Marie place her hand gently on the white sheets and gripped the
lifeless hand underneath. Stephen was a mass of tubes going
everywhere; hooked into a machine like something out of a bizarre
science fiction scene. But this was neither bizarre nor make
believe. His skull was surrounded in tightly wrapped bandages.
His mouth was stretched to accommodate the tube which ran down
his throat into his respitory system and tubes led into drips and
machines both sides of the bed.
The blinding whiteness of bandages and skin alike were offset by
the blackness of his perfectly curved eyebrows and lashes.
The 30-second news report did not tell us about this. Did not
tell us about the hopeless bedside vigil of his mother and his
family. But also did not tell us about the soldier being arrested
and charged with attempted murder - because it never happened.
Every few seconds Marie would bend over and tenderly stroke
Stephen's cheek with the tips of her fingers as if afraid to
awaken her sleeping child. The life support apparatus gave the
illusion of life but no more. I think Marie knew that now.
I raised the camera and took the photograph.
The flash provoked an immediate furore in the ward. Nursing staff
descended upon us, angry, demanding the camera, closing the doors
and calling for security.
We looked at each other and knew what we had to do, for Stephen.
The nurses backed down and moved aside when Marie told them she
needed no-one's permission to expose the truth.
That night on the main evening news the reality of what had
happened to little Stephen McConomy, an innocent child caught up
in Britain's colonial war against the Irish people, came home
full force to millions of viewers.
The following day I was with Marie and the family when the
heart-breaking decision was made to switch off the life support
machine. The soldier who looked down the barrel of the plastic
bullet gun, who was safely encased inside a heavily-armoured
personnel carrier, who had clear, unobstructed vision of his
target, squeezed the trigger in full knowledge of the
consequences of his actions against this little boy. I listened
in court to his written testimony, given by another in his
absence, that he believed his life was in danger. That was bad
enough. But a jury believed him and a judge endorsed their
findings. Where and when will Marie McConomy and the countless
other victims of rubber and plastic bullets receive any justice?