From the archives
JULY 24th, 1970:The effects of CS tear gas, regularly used by the British army on demonstrators in the North in the early days of the Troubles, were brought home dramatically to British MPs when a man hurled two canisters of it into the House of Commons in 1970. Two men were later charged in connection with the incident, claimed by a group calling itself the “Present from the Bogside Committee”, and James Anthony Roche was sentenced to 18 months in jail for carrying it out. In this report Renagh Holohan described what happened. – JOE JOYCE
TWO CANISTERS of CS gas were thrown into the chamber of the House of Commons from the public gallery yesterday. M.P.s hurried for the door, covering their faces, and the House of Commons was suspended for two hours.
The canisters were thrown by a young man in a yellow pullover who shouted: “How do you like that – you bastards?” As one canister followed the other into the chamber, everyone looked on stunned. Some people present said that they also heard him shout “Ulster”, but others said it was “Belfast”. Another report quoted him as saying: “Now you know what its (sic) like in Belfast.” He then put his hands up behind his head and was quickly escorted by the guards from the gallery. The incident happened at about 4.35 p.m. as Mr. Anthony Barber was speaking on the Common Market negotiations. The canisters, the first of which rolled towards the Labour front bench and the second towards the Government side, were thought at first to be fire-crackers, and M.P.s laughed. Some members of the press gallery thought that they were hand grenades. The cloud of white gas spread across the chamber and up into the galleries. The Speaker then removed his mace and the house adjourned. There were about 120 M.P.s in the House at the time, but there was no panic in leaving.
Soon, the chamber was filled with gas, and people emerged from it and from the galleries coughing and spluttering, with their eyes stinging. For two hours, attempts, with the ventilation system at full blast, were made to rid the chamber of the fumes, but when the House resumed at 6.45 p.m. the press gallery at least was unbearable for longer than two minutes, while the floor of the House was apparently clear. Then, Mr. Barber recommenced his speech.
Mr. Gerry Fitt, the Republican Labour M.P. for West Belfast at Westminster, said later: “I do not condone this incident. I do not know who was responsible for it, but it has had the dramatic effect of bringing home to all M.P.s that which could not be brought home to them in any other way – what the effects of CS gas have been in Northern Ireland.
“I have protested bitterly that young children, two or three months old, and old people, some of them over 80, have suffered ill-effects from the use of this gas. Everyone knew what the effects were like except those who had not been there. Now M.P.s can talk about it with a good deal more authority.”