19 January 2006

EDITORIAL: CS gas – yet again

Irelandclick


BBC photo

All over Ireland and Britain the interface between young people and the police is difficult and often dangerous. Young people everywhere naturally bridle at authority figures and the tales from the courts North and South after every latest weekend of confrontation and aggro between officers and teenagers tell their own story.

But things are a little different here in the North. Added to the almost obligatory distrust of the police engendered by hormonal teenage rebelliousness, are folk memories of the RUC and the role they have played in targeting and abusing this community down through the years. The sight of PSNI Land Rovers speeding into nationalist districts with engines whining and doors clanging still has the power to instil fear and alarm. And memories are still strong of the days when bullets – plastic and lead– flew, and when the acrid tang of CS gas filled the air.

Which is why the increasing use of CS gas spray by the PSNI in dealing with public order incidents in West Belfast is a cause for real concern. It was to be hoped that this generation of young people might be spared the stinging eyes and the burning throat – but it seems the PSNI is intent on giving a dose of the gas to a new generation of young nationalists. Our front page story shows the effect that the powerful gas had on the skin of a schoolboy who was sprayed with gas. The PSNI, as they always do, say they won’t comment on individual cases, but the facts speak for themselves.

The force’s own guidelines say that the gas should not be used at a distance of less than one metre. The young boy who suffered the burns and blisters to his neck says that the officer who sprayed him did it at point blank range. Those of us who have been in the thick of the gas in the past – and there are many – will know that the gas in mist form, as it would be if fired from the recommended four to six feet, can cause severe discomfort. Fired at point blank range and thus coming into contact with the skin in large and intense doses, burning and blistering is the inevitable outcome.

That the PSNI would do that is bad enough – that they would do it on a 15-year-old is beyond belief.

No-one is suggesting for one moment that a group of adolescents cannot be a considerable handful at times. Those who have encountered groups of young males while out walking will testify that they can. But there is a difference between a single, vulnerable person and two Land Rovers full of burly officers armed to the teeth and heavily protected.

The PSNI claim they came under attack from stone throwers in the Shaws Road district on Saturday night and that a confrontation occurred when they moved in to make arrests. The first thing to be said about that is that it would be nice if they would act so swiftly and decisively when it is members of this community that are being attacked as they did when it was armoured vehicles. The second thing to be said is that it only takes one look at the burns and blisters sustained by this 15-year-old to appreciate that what happened on the Shaws Road on Saturday night was not an arrest operation but effectively a punishment attack.

The use of CS gas in nationalist Belfast has the power not only to injure, it has the power also to conjure up the ghosts of the past. Next thing the PSNI will start wearing crash helmets and knee-length black overcoats.

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