Whose Water Cannon is it Anyway?

Hello all,

What follows is a note on constitutional law and the result of its practical application.

Oh, the joys of devolution and the stark contrast between the government approach towards the composite countries of the UK. Every so often, a news story focusing on a particular government policy or decision crops up, reinforcing the differences, therefore stoking the fire of yet another Leah political rant.

What could it possibly be today? I hear you ask. Well, it was the decision and subsequent statement of the Home Secretary, Theresa May which has prompted this blog post. (I hasten to assure you that it is indeed on a matter of policy, and not her rather unique fashion sense.) For a clue as to what I am snidely referring to, more information and the link to the main article detailing the decision, see the 15th July edition PolLaw Express blog post here.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, did on this day come to a rather controversial decision. She has refused to allow the use of water cannon in England and Wales – a year after three of them were bought by the Metropolitan Police on a wave of ‘let’s bring back law and order the old-fashioned Tory way’ by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. He had authorised the purchase of three second-hand cannon, at a total cost of £328,883 when the cost of repairs is factored in.

Met Police commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan Howe has argued the case for water cannon in the past, ‘Protest is a part of our democracy. We police hundreds every year and almost all are peaceful. Nevertheless, there are a few occasions when violent disorder is threatened and violence is quite distinct from legitimate protest.’ (He was writing three years after the intense summer riots in London; in March 2012 the Met had first put forward the case that they required new tactics, training – and water cannon could provide a ‘vitally useful tactic’.)

It seems this is a sentiment shared by the Prime Minster, as a spokesman for David Cameron said in a statement last year that the Prime Minister believed the police should have the resources they wanted.

Now, after a lengthy report into examining the role and use of water cannon and the history of same around Europe, the Home Secretary has concluded she cannot and will not allow the British police in England and Wales to avail of the purchased water cannon. She states three reasons behind her decision:

  1. Medical and technical reasons: ‘While evidence suggests that these water cannon are unlikely to result in serious or life-threatening injuries as currently built and used as envisaged, the assessment nonetheless poses a series of direct and indirect medical risks from their use.’ She cited the case of a 66 year-old man in Stuttgart who was rendered blind during a protest by a model similar to those purchased by the Mayor and seeking to be used by the Met. She also voiced her concerns regarding the actual condition of the water cannon; they are 25 years old and required intensive repairs after their purchase.
  2. Operational use: whilst the police had argued the use of water cannon could prevent the use of force to disperse crowds, the Home Secretary had her doubts, ‘it made clear that water cannon has limitations, especially in response to fast, agile disorder. This has been borne out by further discussion with chief constables, who raised the possibility that the vehicles may serve to attract crowds to a vulnerable location and noted that evidence from Northern Ireland suggests that the deployment of water cannon usually requires significant advance notice – casting doubt on their utility in a riot scenario.’
  3. ‘Police legitimacy’ concerns: ‘I am acutely conscious of the potential impact of water cannon on public perceptions of police legitimacy. As a number of chief constables argued, in areas with a history of social unrest or mistrust of the police, the deployment of water cannon has the potential to be entirely counter-productive.’

She has rejected using water cannon for the above reasons for the 43 forces in England and Wales, but the application to request her permission to use water cannon and her subsequent rejection of  the aforementioned application ‘does not apply to Northern Ireland where the use of water cannon is already authorised’, according to her Statement made before Parliament today. And this, dear reader, is the issue in hand.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where water cannon is used to disperse crowds.

Water canon is used often, most frequently during parade/marching season (save all the jokes re ‘cooling down the marchers’) and in actual fact, they were deployed in North Belfast this Monday against Loyalist demonstrators during the annual Twelfth of July celebrations.

I should state that as far as police tactics go, water cannon is preferable than other forcible tactics. Given Northern Ireland’s history, it should come as no surprise to learn that a whole manner of tactics have been used by both the RUC back in the day, to the modern PSNI, including rubber and plastic tipped bullets. I should also state that I believe protesters and rioters, should they use violence and their actions threaten the lives and safety of others, should be dispersed by the police. I strongly believe in the right of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly as granted by the European Convention on Human Rights. However, once peaceful and non-violent assembly degenerates into unlawful, violent and dangerous rioting and disorder, I believe in police using their powers granted by law to restore order, safety and stability.

All of the above however only reiterates the difference between NI and the mainland, confirmed today by the Home Secretary. If she has such concerns about the use of water cannon on medical, technical and police legitimacy grounds, during the investigation or at its conclusion, why has she never ordered a review into the use of water cannon in Northern Ireland?

How could she so freely discuss her acceptance of water cannon use in Northern Ireland and her concerns for water cannon use in the rest of the UK in the same breath?

Boris Johnson actually made a sarcastic retort upon hearing her decision, that he ‘failed to see the physiological difference’ between the people of Northern Ireland and in the mainland UK.

Now, we can easily dismiss this all as a matter for Stormont (I am one of those who are proud of devolution in NI), or that this is all related to events and history circa The Troubles and that Northern Ireland is a ‘special case’ (goodness, how condescending is that notion) where water cannon can be and is used. But that is the easy way out, and I for one cannot accept it.

The truth of the matter is simply this: mainland British politicians do not wish to kick the hornet’s nest, and would rather leave Northern Ireland, with its confusing and bloody history and complex political nature to one side, and to the NI Office and Stormont (most noticeably in that order, may I add).

In her statement, Theresa May says she cannot give her permission as the medical and scientific evidence points that ‘serious harm’ can arise from the (ab)use of power she has granted to the police to decrease the crime rate. Yet she has never commentated on the action of her fellow Home Secretary who authorised permission to allow water cannon to be used in Northern Ireland.

As someone who has been born and raised in Northern Ireland, I must confess I find it rather insulting that I am not subject to the same protection afforded to my peers in the mainland. My security, my health, my welfare – nothing. The threat water cannon could pose to someone in Northern Ireland is not what causes such concern to the Home Secretary of the UK – it is the threat of what the same piece of equipment could do to someone in London, not Belfast.

Allow me to provide a comparative decision based on the three reasons:

  1. On the basis of medical reasons: Ms May stated the assessment of the use of water cannon posed a ‘series of direct and indirect medical risks from their use.’

So, Ms May, please answer me this: the people of England and Wales should be protected from any potential harm or risk arising from the use of water cannon, but not the citizens of Northern Ireland?

2. On the basis of operational use:  the Home Secretary argued that the use of water cannon has limitations, especially in response to fast, agile disorder and  the vehicles could attract the crowds to a vulnerable location. Whilst this has occurred in Northern Ireland, more often than not the present of water cannon can deter would-be protesters, or ensure that protests are non-violent as their presence resonates as a statement of intent from the PSNI. Moreover, this fear of crowds exploiting a vulnerable area is not necessarily borne out; water cannon are placed in strategic areas, not vulnerable ones, as this placement defeats their very purpose.

Ms May stated that evidence from Northern Ireland ‘suggests that the deployment of water cannon usually requires significant advance notice – casting doubt on their utility in a riot scenario.’ I respectfully disagree. Yes, advance notice is required. Yes, this means the PSNI show their hand to the protesters. However, water cannon have been effectively used in Northern Ireland in fast-paced, quickly evolving riot scenarios. I would go as far as to submit that the advance notice and thus knowledge of the protesters ensures the PSNI’s wishes for a non-violent protest are well-known – as are the consequences for violence. This could, in fact,  actually prevent riots.

3. On the basis of ‘Police legitimacy’ concerns: Ms May was concerned about the public perception of water cannon use by police in that ‘in areas with a history of social unrest or mistrust of the police, the deployment of water cannon has the potential to be entirely counter-productive.’ I find myself agreeing with her on this issue. However, it is my agreement with her on this point which emphasises my discontent with her overall decision today.

In Northern Ireland, these such areas do exist. The PSNI are still deeply distrusted, notably in areas where social unrest can occur. Yet, water cannons are still used – whether as a symbol of police intent, or actively used to shower the crowds. Surely such actions do not aid in the rectifying of relationships between the PSNI and these communities? The Home Secretary’s argument is flawed in its very truth: she knows such areas exist in Northern Ireland, know that there are barriers of deep division and suspicion of the PSNI, yet continues to permit the use of water cannon here, but rejects it being utilised in England and Wales.  In other words, it is all well and good to allow the continuation of negative police-community relations in Northern Ireland, just as long as similar relations are not cultivated in the mainland.

As Home Secretary for the entirety of the UK, Ms May should consider the use of water cannon in Northern Ireland alongside the NI Office. Stormont has devolved policing and justice powers, yes, but seeing as it was a Home Secretary who granted permission to enable the use of water canon in Northern Ireland, it would be fitting if it were a Home Secretary who reviewed its continued use.

Perhaps I am being unduly harsh on the Home Secretary, and should instead vent at the Justice Department of the NI Executive. However, consider those three reasons again and place them within a NI perspective, and maybe I am not being unduly harsh at all.

Mind you, given that Theresa May was essentially throwing down the gauntlet, perhaps to stake her claim a future Tory leadership debate (consider the plaudits for George Osborne after his Budget launch and the subsequent rumours of a Conservative Leader-in-Waiting) maybe I am exasperated to no end.  This, her snubbing Boris Johnson in her decision and his sarcastic reply merely proves that it is politics before people as ever. So perhaps the people of Northern Ireland and in the mainland are united in that at least.

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