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4 September 1997 Edition

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Plastic bullets - time for justice

Last week it was revealed that the rules for firing plastic bullets are less strict in the Six Counties than in Britain. Sinn Féin Councillor Chrissie McAuley remembers visiting the family of one young victim as his life ebbed away

``Plastic bullets were fired by an army patrol in Derry today at a hostile crowd in the Bogside area,'' drolled the TV commentator. ``One of the rioters was seriously injured and taken to hospital.'' My heart sank again, knowing from experience that everything about the report needed to be treated with scepticism given the numbers of innocent people being targeted, injured and killed with plastic bullets.

Two days later the corridor leading to the intensive care unit of Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital stretched before me. It was on occasions like this that I wished to God the conflict would just go away or, more honestly, that I could just walk away.

I pushed open the double doors. Beyond, people were either sitting together in groups, talking quietly, or standing alone with their thoughts and feelings. They leaned up against walls or sat looking at their joined hands or, crouched over, stared down at their toes. The one thing they shared was a stomach-sick anxiety for the loved ones in the unit.

My eyes searched for a woman called Marie but it was my ears which picked out her lilting Derry accent. She was a very petite woman who had her dark hair tightly pulled back into a pony-tail. She was talking to a woman and a man who, by the sound of their dialect and conversation, were probably relatives.

I blundered into their lives by asking ``Excuse me, Are you Stephen McConomy's people?''

Within the next few hours, I traversed the terrain in human relationships from stranger to friend. They didn't know anyone in Belfast. The past two days since Stephen was shot in the back of the head by a plastic bullet, had been a long and lonely nightmare for the whole family.

In talking to them about the circumstances of the shooting it was clear that Stephen's story needed telling to the world.

The news from the neuro-surgeons was bleak. ``No point in operating''. There was nothing substantial left of his brain responses to operate on. The back of his head had been blown off, indicating a discharge of the lethal plastic bullet weapon at point black range. In other words, the soldier in question must have been within a few yards of his young 11-year-old target.

Marie was quiet for a while as I asked a few questions about what had happened. Her brother Michael and sister Rhonda did most of the talking. Every few minutes I could feel her eyes looking at me as if she was searching for a purpose to speak. I knew that particular look from the relatives of others who had been injured or killed. They do not want to speak about what happened because it is too painful in the recounting; so they tend to say nothing unless it is to say the things they think others want them to heard. Silly things like ``I'm fine, thank you'' or ``It's good of you to come''.

I remember I had been talking about the fear nationalist parents have of their children being hit by plastic bullets when Marie stirred as if out of a dream and asked me about my children. Did I have a son? I was nervous telling her about him because for some irrational reason I felt guilty that he was OK, unlike Stephen...

Suddenly she looked at me intensely and asked if I would photograph Stephen. She said she wanted to let people decide whether her little boy, the eldest of three sons, and the brightest in his class deserved the death sentence for being a child playing too close to an army saracen at the wrong time. She wanted to know did the world agree with a heavily-armed professional soldier when he said he believed his life was at risk by the proximity of Stephen and his friend tending a makeshift fire at the side of the road.

Taking a photograph was something I had thought about raising with the family but had decided against as it would be too indelicate.

Now, with Marie looking at me for a positive response, my stomach rose and fell like the stormy sea waves painted on the corridor outside. I was anxious about the prospect of raising her expectations only to fail for some technical reason or worse still, an error on my part, in taking the photograph.

We also had the hospital authorities to contend with. Over the years, there had been numerous TV documentaries made which charted the near death injuries and followed the road to recovery of members of the British Army and RUC. Apparently the Health Board had no difficulty facilitating such programmes.

We decided to do it.

I left the hospital briefly and returned with a camera.

Marie told the nurse, who looked at me quizzically, that I was with her and motioned me to go forward. Marie was determined to carry through what was probably the last maternal act she could render for her son. And so, with my heart pounding into my ears and a strange sense that this was a movie I was watching, I walked with her into the quietness of Stephen's ward.

Marie place her hand gently on the white sheets and gripped the lifeless hand underneath. Stephen was a mass of tubes going everywhere; hooked into a machine like something out of a bizarre science fiction scene. But this was neither bizarre nor make believe. His skull was surrounded in tightly wrapped bandages. His mouth was stretched to accommodate the tube which ran down his throat into his respitory system and tubes led into drips and machines both sides of the bed.

The blinding whiteness of bandages and skin alike were offset by the blackness of his perfectly curved eyebrows and lashes.

The 30-second news report did not tell us about this. Did not tell us about the hopeless bedside vigil of his mother and his family. But also did not tell us about the soldier being arrested and charged with attempted murder - because it never happened.

Every few seconds Marie would bend over and tenderly stroke Stephen's cheek with the tips of her fingers as if afraid to awaken her sleeping child. The life support apparatus gave the illusion of life but no more. I think Marie knew that now.

I raised the camera and took the photograph.

The flash provoked an immediate furore in the ward. Nursing staff descended upon us, angry, demanding the camera, closing the doors and calling for security.

We looked at each other and knew what we had to do, for Stephen.

The nurses backed down and moved aside when Marie told them she needed no-one's permission to expose the truth.

That night on the main evening news the reality of what had happened to little Stephen McConomy, an innocent child caught up in Britain's colonial war against the Irish people, came home full force to millions of viewers.

The following day I was with Marie and the family when the heart-breaking decision was made to switch off the life support machine. The soldier who looked down the barrel of the plastic bullet gun, who was safely encased inside a heavily-armoured personnel carrier, who had clear, unobstructed vision of his target, squeezed the trigger in full knowledge of the consequences of his actions against this little boy. I listened in court to his written testimony, given by another in his absence, that he believed his life was in danger. That was bad enough. But a jury believed him and a judge endorsed their findings. Where and when will Marie McConomy and the countless other victims of rubber and plastic bullets receive any justice?

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An Phoblacht
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