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Vindication for Francis Rowntree's courageous family

If a proper inquest had been staged back in 1972 when 11-year-old Francis Rowntree became the first person to be killed by a rubber bullet during the Troubles, a series of further tragedies might well have been prevented.

Instead, the authorities effectively looked the other way, a full review of the use of such weapons failed to take place and the Rowntree family was left with no official explanation for their devastating loss.

Over the next 17 years, until their deployment was eventually scaled down, rubber or plastic bullets were responsible for another 16 deaths.

It was particularly telling that eight of the fatalities, including Francis – a primary school pupil in west Belfast - were children, ranging in age from 15 to ten.

There were overwhelming indications that the weapons were being discharged in an indiscriminate fashion and were entirely unsuitable for any kind of crowd control measures during periods of tension and confrontation.

However, British soldiers and RUC officers stationed in densely populated areas continued to fire rubber and plastic bullets in large quantities.

It needs to be accepted that they were operating in difficult and dangerous circumstances when their own lives were frequently at risk, but it is also clear that a disproportionate number of those struck by what also became known as baton rounds were ordinary pedestrians or youthful bystanders.

When a coroner finally had the opportunity to consider the Rowntree case, his landmark ruling yesterday said "There was no justification for the use of lethal force at the time that Francis was shot."

As well as declaring his firm belief that Francis was not involved in rioting, the coroner also noted that no warning was given before the weapon was fired and the soldier was neither provided with training in the use of the bullets nor made aware that they were potentially lethal.

Those were highly significant findings which, if an inquest had actually taken place in 1972, could have formed the basis for new instructions governing rubber bullets.

Such an initiative, if it had been rigorously enforced, would almost certainly have saved lives and prevented the traumatic ordeals which engulfed entire communities.

Members of the Rowntree family was also denied the immediate judicial process to which they were entitled, but they deserve great credit for their dignified, determined and tireless campaigning on behalf of Francis.

While the coroner is due to issue a more detailed report at a later stage, and a civil action against the Ministry of Defence is also expected, yesterday's developments represented complete vindication for a courageous group of relatives.

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