Internal files on case of Derry boy who was blinded and received out-of-court settlement are unearthed in National Archives
10 June 2013Richard Moore was struck in the face with a rubber bullet and lost his sight at age 10. (Photograph: AFP/Getty Images)The Ministry of Defence knew that rubber bullets used during the Troubles caused serious injuries and could be lethal but concealed the information from victims, according to documents uncovered in the National Archives.
Files relating to compensation being sought by lawyers for Richard Moore, who was blinded in Derry in 1972, reveal that the army was aware at the time that tests at Porton Down defence laboratories had demonstrated the projectiles caused serious injuries and were potentially fatal.
The Ministry of Defence always categorised rubber bullets as non-lethal despite the fact that three youths were killed using the projectiles during 1972 and 1973. The youngest, Francis Rowntree, was aged 11.
The internal MoD papers on Moore's case were unearthed in the National Archives by researchers from the Pat Finucane Centre in Northern Ireland, who are systematically working their way through the records.
Moore, then aged 10, was running home from school on 4 May 1972. Army reports said there had been rioting near a joint army-police post above the city's Bogside. A sentry, supposedly under a barrage of stones, fired at close range without bouncing his shot off the ground. Moore, running past, was struck in the face and lost his sight instantly.
A confidential memorandum from 1977 highlights the political embarrassment posed by Moore's compensation-seeking lawyers when they asked to see relevant documents. "Our legal advisers … had earlier thought we would not need to disclose … details of the tests on the weapon done at Porton before it was introduced [in 1971]," the MoD notes record.
"The papers will [show] that the tests were carried out in a shorter time than was ideal because the army needed a riot-control weapon quickly, that the ministry was aware that it could be lethal, that it could and did cause serious injuries, but that these penalties were accepted in order to give the army a riot control weapon of lower lethality …"
Other MoD documents refer to the "paucity of research into the effects of rubber bullets" and question whether the revelations would be "so damaging to MoD interests that … the case should settled at almost any cost?"
One of the papers sought was a "summary of research on various sizes of rubber bullets from the scientific adviser to the [General Office Commanding] Northern Ireland, dated December 1970".
The ministry, it was said, "would not like to see [them] become public property", in particular some of the comments that would "provide a field-day for the more malicious sectors of the press".
Threatened with being forced to release the documents, the MoD agreed an out-of-court settlement with Moore's lawyers. One official recorded: "It was of some comfort that one of our senior counsel, not one of those handling our case, commented that £68,000 was a 'rock bottom price' for this case."
Paul O'Connor, of the Pat Finucane Centre, said: "What is apparent from these documents is that grown, educated men conspired to ensure that a 10-year-old boy, who was blinded, was prevented from seeing information that he had a right to view.
"[Rubber bullets] were always described as non-lethal technologies. In the light of this information, rubber bullets should never have been introduced."
Moore, now 51, a musician and married with two children, runs a charity, Children in Crossfire, which helps young people trying to escape violence and poverty in Africa. He has since made friends with the soldier who fired the rubber bullet.
"I was running along and had just passed the British army lookout post," he recalled. "It hit me on the bridge of the nose. I'm totally reconciled to my situation now and not looking for anything.
"But there should be transparency and honesty. The army knew rubber bullets were lethal yet always denied it at the time. Other people were blinded or killed by rubber bullets. The government shouldn't have held back crucial information from their families."
Rubber bullets were replaced by plastic baton rounds in 1974. A further 14 deaths followed in Northern Ireland, the last in 1989. Scientists at Porton Down later tested them on pigs to assess the damage. The latest version are still in police armouries: senior officers in London considered using plastic baton rounds to disperse rioters in 2011.