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Independent Intervention

Monitoring the police, parades and public order

2. What is a monitor?

We all monitor the world around us: we observe actions and events and we act on the basis of our observations. In any social situation - in our case parades, protests, and civil disturbances - everybody is monitoring the flow of events: marchers, spectators, demonstrators, protesters, police, the emergency services, the media, peace and human-rights groups, researchers, politicians, businessmen church officials. However, when we speak of ‘a monitor’ or ‘an observer we are indicating individuals or groups with particular roles.

We are specifically interested in those people, groups or non-governmental organisations that define themselves as not directly involved in what is taking place - in other words as a ‘non-participant’ or ‘third party’. This is not to suggest that they do not have opinions or do not wish to have an impact on what is taking place. In general we will define ‘monitors’ as third-party groups that intend principally to observe and record what is taking place. But monitors can also take a more active role than just observing, by placing themselves in a position to intervene, either through their physical presence or, more commonly, through mediating, facilitating negotiation or providing a line of communication.

As such we also include stewards or marshals within the wider category of monitors because, although they may be part of the group organising the event, they have a specific responsibility to watch the behaviour of their members. They are therefore expected to maintain a more distanced and detached presence, not participating fully in the occasion.

Observing and monitoring

The diverse third-party groups use a variety of names to describe their work. Some call themselves observers, others call themselves monitors and some describe themselves as witnesses. We will use the term monitor to refer to the broad range of third-party individuals and groups who attend disputed parades. This will include those who describe themselves as observers and witnesses but also third-party players such as mediators and community activists who are prepared to intervene in some way. Observing and intervening describe the two extremes of monitoring. In practice, the different things monitors do are not always easily separated. To understand how they work, and indeed to try to distinguish the varied roles monitors play, we offer a rather loose typology of those involved at parade disputes.


The police have primary responsibility for maintaining public order in society and, along with other members of the security forces, are one of the key participants in the parades disputes. The RUC is present at every dispute, often in large numbers, and probably undertakes more monitoring than any other party Police monitoring takes a variety of forms, from basic visual observation, the responsibility of every officer, through a wide array of photographic and electronic audio and visual monitoring carried out by specialists. While police monitoring may be technically advanced and comprehensive, it is never clear how effective it is. Specialist equipment looks impressive but often its utility is limited in practice. The officers operating it are often restricted in their movement and forced to operate from constrained positions. Thus most police monitoring still comes down to officers simply watching events, subject therefore to the same constraints as other monitors.

Police monitoring is used for maintaining control at the event itself reacting to a fluid situation and anticipating developments. But it can also serve to produce evidence for a subsequent prosecution. The results of such monitoring always remain under the control of the police themselves rather than being of more general availability. Although the police would aim to monitor comprehensively in contentious public situations, it is far from clear how effectively they monitoring their own officers: their point is on the other primary actors. This, in turn, means that the police themselves have become subject to monitoring.


The participants in parades and protests do not see their primary function as monitors but observing is clearly necessary to what they are doing. All parties monitor what is taking place and act according to their understanding of unfolding events. Some undertake more formal recording. Both residents’ groups and marchers have videoed what takes place and a number of residents’ groups have made video films for wider distribution.


Stewards monitor the behaviour of the participants at events. It is not impossible that outsiders could be brought in to act as stewards but most commonly they are part of the organising body Their authority is derived from their relationship to those organising the parade, demonstration or protest. One can distinguish three forms of stewarding.

(1) Formal stewarding: an organisation clearly designates individuals as stewards and therefore gives them authority to control the participants. Formal stewards are always identified in some way. In Northern Ireland such stewards have nearly always been untrained, often appear to be badly organised and are frequently ineffective.

(2) Informal stewarding is done on a more ad hoc basis, by individuals in a group who feel they have some authority or simply wish to control what is taking place at a particular time. Many protests will be controlled by this type of stewarding, often by those directly organising the event.

(3)Paramilitary stewarding: the control of parades and protests in Northern Ireland has often taken place with the tacit or actual involvement of paramilitary groups. They differ from the formal and informal stewarding categories because their authority derives not from the organisers but from the recognition of the power they have within their community.

In each case the authority of the steward derives from recognition of the legitimacy of the organisers by those being stewarded or the perceived ability of stewards to call upon some degree of physical force to restrain or restrict sections of the march or protest. We discuss the role of stewards further in chapter six.

Political representatives

Political representatives often monitor contentious events. In many cases they claim they are not specifically representing a particular group, but their position within a party or relationship to government means they are always effectively aligned. Some politicians also take it upon themselves to monitor in the hope that their position can influence what is taking place. During the parading disputes local politicians have regularly made their presence known and politicians from Britain and the Republic of Ireland have also acted as monitors. The significance of these individuals lies in the influence they may be able to wield with one of the parties or as a channel of communication.

Human-rights groups

These are NGOs that monitor events to observe but not to intervene. In Northern Ireland the group most closely associated with such observing has been the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), whose remit focuses on the protection of human rights and which has specifically monitored the policing of public order during the parades disputes. Two international bodies, Amnesty International and Human Rights/Helsinki Watch, have done similar work although on a much smaller scale. These monitors do not intervene in what they are watching. They all describe their role as having three facets: to observe the utilisation of force by the state, to reduce the likelihood or level of violent confrontation by their presence, and to report on events after they have taken place and thereby to influence policing practices.

Solidarity groups

These groups are present to observe what takes place often with a remit to record human rights abuses and, if appropriate, to intervene. They usually align themselves with one party. Many of the international monitors present at the parading disputes between 1997 and 1999 made it clear they were acting in solidarity with the residents’ groups and described themselves as ‘witnesses’. They made their role clear to the RUG beforehand and in some cases engaged with the parade organisers in an attempt to understand more fully what was taking place. While these groups are clearly in general support of one party, they are usually proponents of non-violent protest and have clearly defined roles for themselves.

Community-based groups

These groups vary in background and motivation but tend to share similar goals. They attend events to monitor but are prepared to intervene to reduce the likelihood of violence or confrontation and to facilitate processes of reconciliation. They perceive themselves to be non-aligned in the disputes and by defining themselves in this way can become important lines of communications through which aligned groups may be able to negotiate. These monitors are often distinguished by their efforts to engage equally with all groups and to position themselves apart from all others, as well as by their relative lack of power and authority The latter is important as it means they do not offer any direct threat to those involved. In this way they differ from politicians or government officials. These groups are continually balancing their involvement in a particular situation with their attempt to remain non-aligned.

Academic researchers

The disputes over parades have attracted a number of students and academic researchers. Some researchers, including ourselves, have attempted to influence the political processes. Our own interest stretches back to 1990, since when we have visited a wide range of parades and demonstrations - we had considerable experience of events before parades became a central political issue in 1995. Our position differs from most of the groups we have discussed. We have never sought to directly intervene in any situation and we do not attempt to influence anything taking place simply by our presence. We are aware of other academics and students, local and international, who have similarly acted as observers.


In one sense this is the largest category of observers. The power of journalists is such that they often have an indirect, and sometimes direct, influence on what is taking place. It is probably also true to say that the observations made by journalists remain the most influential. Most aim accurately to record and report what is taking place, although in practice they rarely manage to achieve this: all too often brief moments, in what are often complex situations, can assume an unexpected importance when news is edited, reports are published and they are repeated over the years.

Reporters are aware of their power and position and as such are careful to control access to their observations. News-gathering organisations such as the BBC resist making their pictures available to the police to avoid the possibility that protagonists might see their observations as a threat. However, on occasion the large numbers of journalists has become an issue at protests. They are certainly not always seen by participants as neutral and have sometimes - sometimes understandably - been treated with hostility by protagonists.

The role of monitors

It is clear, therefore, that a diverse range of bodies undertake monitoring at public events. They have different responsibilities, allegiances, aims and approaches but they all seek to influence events in some way. To define, and better understand, the differences between these categories we need criteria through which we can explore the different facets of their role, the relationships between them and their relationships to other key actors. We will discuss these under the following headings: degree of intervention, independence, privileges and perceptions, and relations of power.

Degree of intervention

One dictionary definition suggests that to monitor is to:

observe or inspect, especially for a special purpose; or to regulate or control the operation of...

The act of monitoring indicates that the individuals wish to have some impact on what is taking place. However, the level of intervention can, and does, vary. Some monitors will not intervene during the event but, rather, will collect information to be able to influence the political environment at a later date; others want to act as mediators and possibly directly intervene in events. To clarify the roles different groups play, a number of distinctions can be drawn:

  • Human-rights groups’ influence is most indirect: they observe without intervening at events but aim to have influence by the reports they produce afterwards.

  • Similarly, academic researchers may observe but usually have no desire, intention or capacity to intervene directly in what is taking place, although what they write and who they talk to may influence policy and political relationships.

  • Solidarity groups are willing to intervene but they have a limited impact, particularly if they are from abroad.

  • Community-based groups are often willing, and able, to intervene at events as they happen and are often most effective when they are able to intervene with all parties.

  • Stewards, on the other hand, have a remit to intervene directly but only with one party or with one side. They may also be involved in a debriefing so that their observations may be used by the organisers of future events.

Overall, at any single event, none of the various monitors may do anything more than observe, but their status offers the possibility of more active intervention. This may involve little more than passing messages between two of the parties, responding to rumours or clarifying uncertainties. But it may lead to more active engagement through acting as a crisis manager or negotiator or, on a longer timescale, as a mediator.

There is thus a temporal dimension to differentiating between the various groups. Some groups (stewards, politicians) aim principally to have an immediate impact at the event itself, while others (mediators, academics) may be more concerned with the long-term picture. Some groups would only show an interest when an event has the potential to be disruptive or violent (solidarity groups, foreign politicians). Others would see their principal aim as to try to ensure contentious issues are resolved before the event, or may see the event as only one step in a longer process (human rights and community groups).


The factor which perhaps more clearly distinguishes monitors from other participants is an element of independence - their status as a ‘third party’. Many third-party monitors will go through specific processes to attempt to define themselves as not directly part of an event. This may involve wearing some form of identification andlor physically positioning themselves at a distance to what is taking place. Most monitors introduce themselves to the key actors, to make their presence known and to define their relationship with other parties. This may be simply to say ‘we are observing you’ or it may be effectively to offer a line of communication with other protagonists. Also, making one’s presence and status known to other groups allows for the possibility of movement between opposing parties, although this may not always be advisable and some observer groups recommend against it.

Independence is not the same as being neutral. All monitors that we discuss below would consider themselves independent, in that there is some distance between them and the protagonists. This does not mean, however, that the monitor does not have sympathies with one group: rather, that they distance themselves from the activities on the day. Some groups, on the other hand, would see themselves as independent and neutral, in so far as they have no interest in whether a parade takes place or in the outcome of the event - only that if it takes place it does so peacefully and without human rights being abused.

The role of political representatives is more complex. Politicians are not independent. They usually derive their legitimacy from a democratic endorsement and on that basis assert their right to intervene. But if a politician is perceived as a likely channel for communication and negotiation or is seen as being able to influence a crowd they will often be utilised in a difficult situation. Politicians and representatives of political parties are often the most effective when it comes to intervening. Unlike third-party monitors they can often claim a mandate based on recognised popularity Their lack of independence is then important.

Privileges and perceptions

The stated and perceived role of monitors clearly makes a difference to their position at an event. This may seem obvious but it has important ramifications. Those groups that make a claim to be present as a third party, rather than as a protagonist - whose intention is to watch what is taking place and maybe to offer lines of communication - are often given privileges which those perceived by the police as protagonists are not. This is done either by making clear what their role is on the day or by being part of an organisation that is known to be an active monitor. The aims of the monitoring groups and individuals may determine how they are treated by those involved in the dispute.

Journalists are most often given privileges because most parties usually perceive it as in their best interests to accommodate them. While there are occasions when people see journalists as a threat, or simply as in the way, generally the aims and role of the journalist are recognised and understood. This may also be true of other observers, such as Amnesty International or the CAJ, but their aims are not always as clearly understood and some groups feel them to be threatening to their cause. Other groups may have to explain their aim in order to gain privileges.

In essence, those that want to be in a position to move freely as observers and monitors are making a claim that they are not direct protagonists, that they are playing a specific role as third-party monitors. However, as most have discovered, the act of moving from one side to another, usually crossing police lines, can raise suspicions about one’s role. Consequently, groups present simply to observe, rather than intervene, will often avoid moving between the protagonists.

Relations of power

Relations of power are vital in understanding the role of the monitor. Broadly speaking power can derive from two sources: the ability or authority to control physical force (whether that be a crowd or the use of weapons) or the acknowledged legitimacy of the role an individual or a group can play. A police officer, the leader of a community group and a parade organiser can all wield a certain amount of power simply because they have some authority over a group of people.

What all third-party monitors have in common is that they do not wield power through any direct threat of physical force. In a situation where there is a potential breakdown of public order loci of power are found in the wielding of weapons or in physical numbers. Those who take on the role of monitors attempt to make it clear that they offer no physical threat to any protagonists. These relations of power are complex. Monitors who do not wish to intervene can claim to wield no direct power in a situation. However, recognition that they have an ability and credibility in distributing information and influencing people after the event clearly means that their presence can influence people’s actions.

Monitors who wish to intervene by mediating or offering themselves as a line of communication are utilising their third-party status to claim trust from parties who potentially control physical force. But in trying to utilise that trust to wield influence they are in danger of being seen by different parties, wittingly or unwittingly, as being manipulated by the other side(s). Claims to third-party status or to be able to offer reliable lines of communication are always under threat - with the ability to remain an effective monitor thereby placed at risk. That is why such observers as the CAJ value their ability to remain in a position to record what is taking place while not offering themselves as mediators or as lines of communication.

Validity of observations

Public-order situations involving large numbers of people are highly complex. One can only ever get partial view of what is taking place: no one can see everything. As events escalate, a whole series of activities may take place so that it may be impossible to say who ‘started it’. Was it the kids rushing forward or the police putting on the riot gear? Was it the band playing The Sash or someone hurling abuse? Was it a group of journalists pushing to get an interview or an RUG Land Rover moving to a new position? Was it a group of protesters changing where they wanted to stand or an influx of new people? Perceptions can differ so widely it is very difficult to make judgments.

To add to these problems, all observations are also always partial. A television picture can show so much, yet hide so much more. Reports are always edited. Observations are limited and memories get distorted. This is not to say that information and understanding cannot be gathered but merely to recognise how different perceptions of events arise. An incident can look quite different to two people. The flying of a particular flag, the playing of a particular song, the arrival of a particular politician or the use of certain language can be read in different ways. Are police officers putting on riot gear preparing to attack or taking reasonable health and safety precautions in upholding the law? Were the flags put up on lampposts to threaten or to commemorate? What is the motivations of children throwing stones - should it be seen as provocative? It is impossible fully to understand the dynamics of a particular situation if one does not examine the worldviews of those taking part.

To understand the role of monitors we have attempted to look at who they are and what roles they play. The boundary between steward, representative, observer, journalist and researcher is not always clearly defined. Many examples can be found where individuals have moved from one role to another: when stewards attempt to mediate a situation; when political representatives attempt to steward or act as mediators; when monitors feel that they have no choice but to intervene; when researchers decide to become more actively involved in advocacy; and when journalists write to influence policy in the way that monitors do.

It is important to realise that when an individual shifts role there are ramifications which problematise returning to their original role. Those who have been acting as monitors and then engage in negotiations realise that, if events go wrong, active engagement could hinder their ability to monitor in the future. A political representative who chooses to intervene directly as a steward risks being perceived by others as an organiser. Once the researcher has produced policy documents they can no longer claim the academic distance which had allowed them to work with some groups.

But while individuals and groups may cross the boundaries between the roles, their definition is reasonably clear. In theory we can define people as stewards, observers or mediators - even if in practice things might not be so clear.

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