Northern Ireland

NI state papers: Thatcher pressed on plastic bullets

Police fire plastic bullets in 1984
Image caption The surgeon wanted the security forces to consider an alternative to plastic bullets

Previously unreleased state papers from 1983 reveal an exchange of letters about the use of plastic bullets in Northern Ireland.

The exchange was between the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and a surgeon at a Manchester hospital.

Dr C M Bannister, a consultant neurosurgeon at Booth Hall Children's Hospital, wrote to Mrs Thatcher asking her to consider a change of policy.

She said she had recently seen children injured by plastic bullets.

This was during a visit to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, when she was taken on a tour of the wards.

"It was inevitable that I should see children who have recently been injured by plastic bullets," she wrote.

"I am sure you are aware of the extent and severity of the injuries that these missiles are inflicting on the brain of the under-15s."

'Urgent consideration'

She concluded: "I cannot believe that it is beyond the ingenuity of the security forces to devise a less dangerous means of deterring these youngsters.

"Please persuade them to give this matter the most urgent consideration. However much one condemns the actions of these children, one cannot condone the injuries they are receiving."

In a personal reply on 5 June 1984, Mrs Thatcher stated that she shared Dr Bannister's concern at the injuries sustained, particularly since the young victims were "rarely the instigators of the disturbances".

However, the prime minister went on to defend their use and said: "The use of the baton round is strictly controlled by police and army regulations."

She added: "Police and soldiers have been subject to sustained and ferocious attack."

The newly-released papers contain details on a number of other issues:

  • How plans for a west Belfast plant for aircraft manufacturers Shorts were blocked by the Treasury who felt the location was driven by "sectarian" considerations
  • How the then Sinn Fein director of publicity Danny Morrison requested Northern Ireland Office press releases to be sent to the party, and turned up at a press conference at Stormont Castle
  • How radioactive waste was secretly dumped in Belfast and Londonderry in the early 1980s
  • Government concerns about the Protestant 'brain drain' from Northern Ireland

The state papers also highlight concerns in government circles about the performance of the SDLP in the face of growing support for Sinn Fein.

In a memo on the fortunes of John Hume's party - dated 13 May 1983 - R S Reeve of the NIO's political affairs bureau noted the decline of the party since 1974.

Mr Reeve's memo for the then secretary of state, Jim Prior stated: "By comparison with the Sinn Fein team, the SDLP are seen as rather middle-class, middle-aged and out of touch with the community."

More than 1,000 documents have been published by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). However, 225 have been kept secret by PRONI as many of them are said to contain "sensitive personal data".

A full catalogue of all the files is available on the PRONI website and the public will have access to the files at PRONI's offices from Monday 30 December.