THE SHOOTING OF BRIAN STEWART
I happened to stumble across a testimony given by the sister of a young boy killed in Belfast in 1976. I was so horrified by what I had read, that I felt compelled to write a blog about it. You can read Brian’s sister’s testimony on UK Indymedia in full. This isn’t just a story about the shooting of a young boy, it’s also an example of how press reports can differ so significantly from eyewitness accounts and also the repercussions of the use of plastic bullets for crowd control.
I have collated the most important elements of Marie’s testimony, as well as used newspaper articles from the time and other references. Most importantly, I have steered away from any political opinion and focused on the tragedy of a young boy who was shot and killed needlessly.
BRIAN STEWART – 13/10/1963-10/10/1976
Brian was one of eight children – four boys and four girls – born in to an average working class family, they lived in Norglen Crescent, Turf Lodge, Belfast. Brian was just 4ft 9″ with blonde hair, freckles and blue eyes. Marie describes him as a ‘free spirit’ and always smiling.
4 OCTOBER 1976
Brian had returned home from school as usual and had watched a bit of tv before starting on his homework. Just after 6.10pm, Marie had returned home from work and took over helping Brian with his spelling homework so that their mother could cook their dinner. Marie left Brian practicing his spellings and went in to the kitchen to get a cup of tea. At some point Brian had eaten his dinner but within minutes, the voice of a young boy shouted into the house: “Your Brian has been shot!” Marie headed straight to the living room where she’d left Brian just minutes previously to find he wasn’t there. She was then told that Brian had been carried into the home of a neighbour, Mrs Mulvenna.
Marie describes the horrific sight of seeing her little brother thrashing about on the neighbour’s sofa. He was in great distress and vomited up the food he had just eaten. A man named Frank Diamond was attempting to comfort Brian but he was unaware of his surroundings. The paramedics arrived and took Brian to hospital. He was unresponsive by this point.
Whilst doctors attempted to save Brian, he was surrounded by military personnel and his sister was denied access to be with him.
Brian remained on life support but passed away six days later on 10th October 1976. He was buried three days later – on his 14th birthday.
An autopsy confirmed that Brian had:
- an 8cm hole in the side of his head caused by a plastic bullet;
- extensive lacerations, fractures and bruising of his brain;
- an artery in his brain had been shredded; and
- extensive bruising to his ankles.
- Brian was stood outside a shop talking to two girls when a number of military personnel from the King’s Own Scottish Borders began a foot patrol down the street.
- One neighbour witnessed a soldier kneeling down beside a parked car aiming his gun, when another soldier (who seemed to be a superior) stood behind him and pointed. There was a bang and a squeal.
- Brian had his back to the soldiers and was shot in the head by Pte Charles Smith with a plastic bullet which, it is claimed, was manufactured in Scotland.
- It was claimed that the person who ordered Pte Smith to shoot was Lt O’Brien.
- Major Timothy P T Sewell had been stood next to Pte Smith and taking photographs at the time.
- Brian fell to the ground and four witnesses claimed that a second soldier, Pte Aitchison, then attempted to drag Brian by his ankles along the road before retreating back to his patrol.
Detailed accounts by a number of witnesses can be found here.
- The following day, Major Sewell gave a television interview in which he stated that Brian had been leading a riot of 500 people and that he had been “observed for a considerable time, was specifically targeted and he got what he deserved.”
- The army claimed that Brian had been throwing missiles at soldiers.
- Pte Aitchison claimed he hadn’t dragged Brian by his ankles – he had administered first aid.
- Brian had been a ringleader involved in throwing stones at the army patrol.
The Stewart family claimed that the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) failed to carry out any investigation into Brian’s death and only did so after pressure was placed upon them by local community groups. After an investigation that lasted a few months, the RUC concluded that no prosecutions would be brought against the soldiers involved.
11th October 1976 – Roy Mason
Following Brian’s death and the shooting of a pregnant woman inside her own home, Roy Mason, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, issued a statement in the Commons giving uncompromising support to the army in light of growing criticisms over the spate of controversial incidents involving the British army.
12th October 1976 – Gaelic Athletic Association clubhouse
The army were forced to make an embarrassing retraction when it was discovered that a number of British soldiers had deliberately burnt down a Gaelic Athletic Association club house, despite initial denials of any involvement.
13th October 1976 – Riots
Following Brian’s funeral, the papers reported angry youths had rioted and stoned Anderstown police station.
The inquest was held in December 1977 and heard by Judge Brown. None of the military personnel involved in the incident attended, instead statements were read out on their behalf.
- The army claimed that Brian had been the ringleader involved in throwing stones at the soldiers and that Pte Smith had been hit on his shoulder by a stone, which had caused his aim of fire to misdirect and thus hit Brian accidentally.
- Major Sewell changed the figure of those rioting from 500 to 20. The original footage of his previous statement was refused as evidence.
- Major Sewell’s photographs were never produced as evidence.
- During the hearing, a British army spokesman admitted the soldiers involved did not know the rules regarding the use of the plastic bullet weapon. (See the Appeal for further information on this.)
- All the civilian witnesses present in court gave evidence contrary to the British army version of events that day.
Brian had been shot above his left temple which left a large open wound above his ear. He subsequently died of severe brain damage. The inquest returned an open verdict.
A letter sent to the family from Roy Mason Secretary of State dated 24th July 1978 stated: “I, cannot accept, however the views expressed in your letter that the military lied. It is not, and never has been, denied that Brian died as a result of an incident with the army. What is denied are assertions that the investigations into his death were anything but thorough, painstaking and directed towards uncovering the facts. If the D.P.P. had directed that charges should be brought in the case of Brian Stewart then charges would have been brought. Members of the security forces are expected to act within the law and are subject to the penalties of the law if they do not do so.”
Refusing to accept the verdict, in the years following, Kathleen campaigned tirelessly to obtain justice for her son and in March 1982 an appeal against the decision made by Judge Brown was heard by Lord Justice Jones in which it was claimed that six years previous to Brian’s death, Pte Smith had also shot a 13 year old child (who had also died), which contradicted the army’s claim that the soldiers involved in Brian’s death did not know the rules regarding the use of plastic bullet weapons.
Lord Justice Jones in his summation of the case stated: “…and so I come to the last question, namely did Cpl. Smith (promoted for his heroic act) act with reasonable care in firing. Of course he had to exercise reasonable care. Indeed he had to be very careful, in my opinion, because the baton gun is a potentially lethal weapon. The use of which must be judged against a high standard of care. Cpl. Smith was trained and experienced operator with this weapon.”
EUROPEAN COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS (ECHR)
In November 1982, it was announced that Kathleen had lodged a case against the British government regarding the death of her son on two counts – the right to life, and the prohibition against cruel, degrading or inhuman punishment. Mrs Stewart’s case was lodged with the backing of the National Council on Civil Liberties (NCCL), who had been campaigning to stop the use of plastic bullets since 1975.
In February 1983, Patricia Hewitt, general secretary of NCCL, stated that a campaign was directed towards police authorities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and that at least 10 authorities had decided not to equip forces with plastic bullets.
In July 1984, the case was finally heard at ECHR with the family represented by Lord Gifford, QC. (Stewart v. UK (1982)). The case was dismissed.
The army offered Kathleen £800 compensation with no acceptance of responsibility, which she declined, stating: “… it wasn’t the money I wanted. They could have offered me a million pounds and I wouldn’t have taken it. I just wanted justice.”
Kathleen died in 1999. No charges were ever brought against the soldiers involved.
THE MINERS STRIKE
Whatever your political viewpoint, it should never detract from the fact that Brian was just one of a number of fatalities involving plastic bullets in Northern Ireland. The youngest was just 10 years old. Despite the number of avoidable deaths, archives show that plastic bullets were being stored for use against the miners in 1984. Some of the police forces who had been armed were: The Avon and Somerset, Essex, Humberside, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Merseyside, Metropolitan, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Sussex, Warwickshire, and Wiltshire.