It could be said, thinking back to the Love Ulster parade in 2006, that rioting Dubliners and Police Service of Northern Ireland water cannons share a history of targeting Orangemen. The machines are certainly not British or unionist weapons against the Irish, as some have excitably implied.
The RUC experimented with two custom-made water cannons in 1971 but promptly abandoned them as inadequate to deal with escalating violence. When it borrowed two machines from Belgium in 1999 this was seen as a de-escalation in public order policing, replacing dangerous Troubles-era tactics, as recommended by the Patton Report on police reform, published that year as part of the Belfast Agreement.
The machines were kept on standby at Drumcree and not used until 2000, when loyalist protesters threw acid at security force lines and the RUC decided enough was enough. The vehicles’ water tanks were refilled in a nearby nationalist neighbourhood, where according to legend they were topped up by British soldiers pointedly using them as latrines. Although presumably apocryphal, this story’s popularity indicates the public sense of amusement that surrounded water cannons at their introduction. After decades of violence, then the roller-coaster of the peace process, they seemed almost like comic relief. Objections to their use sounded ridiculous when the alternatives were baton charges and plastic bullets.
The sense of absurdity deepened in 2001 when the newly formed PSNI decided to buy six machines from the Netherlands. A keen new human rights culture swung into action to ensure this would pose no more danger to rioters than light summer rain. Policing had not yet been devolved, as Sinn Féin would not ‘recognise’ it, so it fell to British ministers at the Northern Ireland Office to commission a safety study by the UK’s defence laboratory in Salisbury.
This found there had never been a fatality due to a water cannon, while the worldwide incidence of injuries was “extremely low”. Falling over or getting grit in your eye are the principal risks.
Nevertheless, the PSNI responded by requiring operators to set water pressure to a minimum. It also decided to fit water tanks with heaters to spare the sprinkled from hypothermia, although the study had dismissed this risk outright.
There was widespread mirth as these details dribbled out. The perception that Northern Ireland’s woke water cannons are a bit of a joke has never really drained away. When news emerged last Friday of vehicles being sent to Dublin, the Belfast Telegraph’s crime correspondent, Allison Morris, tweeted: “They may turn the pressure up if they want them to have any impact, I’ve seen those things in use and they were turned down so low it was like a lukewarm shower.”
Despite their harmless reputation, water cannon are deployed increasingly sparingly in Northern Ireland. They have only been used once in the past eight years, during loyalist anti-protocol protests in 2021. The PSNI considers this a mark of the equipment’s success. Ironically, the first use of the PSNI’s Dutch machines was in Dublin in 2004, when two were lent to gardaí to disperse anti-globalisation protesters. This was the first use of water cannons in the Republic but it seems to have been largely forgotten. Perhaps anti-globalisation riots are too well-heeled to require much subsequent reflection.
The real antipathy to water cannon is in Britain, where they have never been used, are strongly opposed by the police, and seem to be regarded by civic and political leaders as disreputably foreign. Opinions vary, however. After the 2011 riots across England there were calls for the introduction of water cannons from the public, the press and government and opposition MPs. In an official response, the chief constable of Merseyside Police wrote: “the deployment of a tactic which could be so closely associated with protracted political disorder in Northern Ireland or the suppression of political protest in Egypt, will have the potential to be significantly counter-productive”.
This association of water cannon with the Troubles was mistaken but revealing. The fear of policing like Northern Ireland is of becoming like Northern Ireland. Is this partly the Republic’s concern?
In 2014, Boris Johnson, then mayor of London, bought three second-hand water cannons from Germany. His stunt compelled the home secretary, Theresa May, to ban their use in England and Wales the following year. Sadiq Khan, the current mayor, sold all three for scrap in 2018, saying “we have finally managed to get rid of them”.
Just not civilised, old chap. But they have caused no problems and proved a solution in Northern Ireland. Dublin is hardly too foreign to benefit from that experience.