03 April 2006

Water cannon could be used to quash street protests


· Senior police officers attend demonstration
· £750,000 vehicles already deployed in Ulster

Owen Bowcott
Monday April 3, 2006
The Guardian

Water cannon could soon be used to quell serious civil disturbances on British streets after a successful display of their effectiveness to senior police officers.

A demonstration was held at a training centre outside Belfast in response to requests from police forces. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is the only force equipped with the vehicles, which cost £750,000 each and deliver powerful jets of water at 5C.

Three years ago the force bought six for use in riots as alternatives to plastic bullets. As many as 17 people, demonstrators and bystanders, were killed during the Troubles by plastic bullets striking crowds or ricocheting in narrow streets.

Water cannon are more commonly used on the continent. Last week French riot police turned hoses on demonstrators in Paris when youths objecting to new job contracts pelted lines of police with stones and bottles. The rioters were quickly dispersed.

The display, billed as the UK's first water cannon conference, was held at Steeple, County Antrim, at the PSNI's public order training centre. Officers from South Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, Fife, Cambridgeshire, Avon and Somerset, Northumbria and the Irish republic's police forces attended.

The Metropolitan police was given a private demonstration last year. Officials from the police inspectorate, Northern Ireland Policing Board and Independent Police Complaints Commission also came to assess the vehicles' potential.

The conference was chaired by the PSNI's assistant chief constable, Duncan McCausland, one of the few officers who has commanded the deployment of water cannon. "Last year they were used effectively during serious public disorder," Mr McCausland told the Guardian. "They provided us with additional tactical options when confronting disturbances around the Whiterock [Orange Order] parade and the Ardoyne.

"We had to deal with blast bombs and gunfire. They gave us a proportionate and appropriate, graduated response. They can save lives and are a means of de-escalating public order situations. They can be used at high pressure (15 bar) or to create an intense haze of water - which makes it difficult to breath and disrupts sit-down protests."

The vehicles, which carry 9,000 litres (1,980 gallons) of water, are deployed in pairs. "Their presence alone will persuade many people they don't want to become involved in anything other than peaceful protests," said Mr McCausland. "Obviously we would prefer not to have to use them." He said British officers were considering buying them but may wait until police reorganisation gives regional forces greater combined purchasing power.

The Association of Chief Police Officers yesterday confirmed it was investigating whether to recommend their use in Britain. Its study is led by Nigel Yeo, the assistant chief constable of Sussex. "The PSNI's experience suggests they have been used successfully and may therefore be of use in England and Wales," an Acpo spokeswoman said. "They are obviously less dangerous than plastic bullets. We are not in a position to recommend them yet."

Nicholas Long, an IPCC commissioner at the demonstration, said: "In principle they do offer opportunities for a less lethal option in an otherwise dangerous environment." He said the vehicle was "an impressive piece of kit with space-age consoles".

At the start of the Troubles in the early 1960s, police used converted Austin fire tenders as water cannon. A wire cage protected the driver and operators from missiles. Armoured personnel carriers were later modified as water cannon, but the vehicles were considered cumbersome and ineffective.

The Belgian Gendarmerie lent the RUC two, technologically improved water cannon in 1999. They were later used in the Drumcree protests.

The Patten report on policing in Northern Ireland recommended: "The police should be equipped with a broader range of public order equipment ... so that a commander has a number of options which might reduce reliance on plastic baton rounds."

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