18 March 2005


Victims of Plastic and Rubber Bullets

Francis Rowntree

Frank Rowntree 11 years, Lower Clonard Street, Falls Road, west Belfast, shot with a (doctored) rubber bullet on 20 April 1972, at the Divis Flats, by members of the British Army’s Royal Anglian Regiment. He died in the Royal Victoria Hospital three days later on 23 April.

Frank was the second youngest in a family with six children. He was a pupil of St Finian’s Primary School on the Falls Road.

In the mid 1990s, Frank’s mother spoke to the Relatives for Justice about her young son and about the day he was fatally injured. Frank had one leg slightly shorter than the other after a series of operations to correct a bone deficiency when he was four, but despite this she said her son was mad about soccer.

She recalled the afternoon of 8 August 1971. Frank had gone to play a football match and not long after he left a man passing the Springfield Road joint British army/RUC Barracks was shot dead by soldiers. Serious rioting broke out in the streets surrounding the barracks. When she heard about the trouble, and worried that Frank might get caught up in it, she went out to look for him. She found him standing on his own at the corner of the Springfield Road and Falls Road dressed in his football kit, his ball under his arm and waiting for his football team’s minibus. All the area around him was in an uproar with rioting, shooting and vehicles burning, but he ‘wouldn’t believe me the man who usually collected him and his friends wasn’t coming.’ She said it took a quite sometime to convince him there would be no football that evening and to come home.

Five days before Frank was fatally injured Joe McCann, a senior member of the Official IRA, was shot dead by British paratroopers in a shoot-to-kill operation in the Markets area of Belfast. Serious violence followed in several areas in Belfast and other parts of the North. The violence following the McCann killing had mostly abated by 20 April, with only sporadic and minor stone throwing incidents continuing in the Falls Road area.

On the afternoon of Thursday, 20 April 1972, Mrs Rowntree said her son came home from school as usual and went out to play in the street with a friend. The area was quiet, and Frank and his friend were still playing in the street when she went to do some shopping. Not long after she left the street Frank and his friend made their way down the Falls Road to the Divis Flats complex. When the two boys arrived at the flats complex there was some minor stone-throwing going on involving small groups of children flinging stones at passing British army armoured vehicles. The two friends were in the flats complex for only a short time before they decided to return home. As they were making their way out of the complex Frank was struck by a doctored rubber bullet fired by a soldier from inside a parked British army armoured vehicle.

The young boy with Frank later described what happened. He said as ‘we approached the corner of Whitehall Pall’ and as we ‘rounded the corner we could see the back end of a British Army Saracen (armoured vehicle) sitting out from the corner. Frank walked straight out and down the wee path to reach the Falls Road. The next thing I heard was a bang, and Frank fell backwards, his feet sticking out from the corner. As the bang came I noticed splinters. This object, what ever it was, disintegrated. I think it was a battery because the stuff looked like the black carbon that is inside a battery. There was no rubber bullet that I could see.’

Immediately after the shooting the army Saracen drove off and Frank was carried unconscious into a nearby flat. The woman who lived there described his injuries. ‘There was a big dent across his forehead, as if the bone was broken at the side of his temple; it appeared to me as if his forehead had collapsed. There was a deep dent at the side of his eye leading to his ear. His ear was enlarged and very discoloured, almost black. His hair was scalped from his hairline at the back of his right ear right round to the back of his head. There was not much blood from the wounds on his head, he was not cut very much—more crushed.’ An ambulance eventually arrived and he was taken to the hospital.

Other residents and eyewitnesses to the shooting were also definite the rubber bullet fired at Frank had been doctored. This involved cutting off the pointed end of the rubber bullet near to the cartridge casing, the bullet was then hollowed out while still in the casing. A battery was then inserted in the cavity. The pointed end was also slightly hollowed out before being forced over the top of the battery, effectively encasing the battery inside the rubber bullet. When the bullet was fired the pointed end dropped off exposing the battery. During the early 1970s it was not unusual for British soldiers to make their rubber bullets more deadly using a variety of items including inserting coins as well as batteries. Several local politicians supported the claims that the rubber bullet used was doctored.

Mrs Rowntree said when she returned home from the shops at 4.30pm she found two teenagers waiting at her front door who told her son had been shot. After contacting her husband they rushed to the near by Royal Victoria Hospital where they found their son in a coma. She said the hospital staff told them there was no hope for him, and if he survived would be blind and seriously brain-damaged.

His death a few days later was the first reported death from the use of rubber and plastic bullet guns by British forces in the North. These weapons, first deployed in August 1970 (ironically on the same streets Frank spent his young life) are still used today, over 31 years later.

An inquest into the death of Frank Rowntree was held in October 1972. None of the British soldiers involved attended the hearing. A representative of the British army read out their statements, identifying each by a letter of the alphabet. The army representative denied the rubber bullet that killed the child was doctored. He also claimed the soldiers inside the Saracen had come under heavy attack by a crowd. One soldier claimed the crowd surrounded their vehicle and he fired the rubber bullet that struck the boy.

A civilian witness said he was walking pass Divis Flats when he saw a boy being struck by a rubber bullet. He also the child was not with a crowd when the soldiers fired their weapon.

Questioned by representatives for the Rowntree family, the British army representative admitted he did not know at what distance it was permissible to fire a rubber bullet gun, or at what part of the body it should be aimed.

A state pathologist rejected eyewitness accounts that a doctored rubber bullet had been used.

Mrs Rowntree said the inquest lasted about an hour before the jury returned an open verdict.

No British soldier was ever charged in connection with the killing of Frank Rowntree.

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