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Independent Intervention

Monitoring the police, parades and public order

5. Monitoring human rights

Disputes over parades have a long history in Ireland (Bryan, Fraser and Dunn 1995; Jarman 1997a; Jarman and Bryan 1996, 1998). The disputes that have developed since 1995 have had particularly important political ramifications because of the way they have been entwined with attempts to consolidate the peace process. There has been a significant response to the resulting public confrontations from NGOs and individuals, locally and internationally, interested in both the general development of the peace process and human rights, social justice and policing. One of the ways this interest has manifested itself has been through the monitoring of contentious events.

A number of NGOS and individuals have attempted to monitor events at disputed parades. Most have a principal remit to observe the flow of events and to influence public opinion at a later stage through published reports, rather than intervening on the day. Most, if not all, such groups say that their intention is to monitor potential or actual abuse of human rights and focus on the relationships between the police and demonstrators.

While all consider themselves as independent monitors, however, some are clearly working in solidarity with the residents’ groups and only maintain an interest in the relationship between the RUC and the nationalist community We would separate these groups, therefore, into two broad categories: human-rights monitors and solidarity monitors.

Human rights and parade disputes

The principal human rights group in Northern Ireland is the Committee on the Administration of Justice formed in 1981. The CAJ is a cross-community group and takes no position on the constitutional position of the north. The organisation’s particular concern is to ensure that the government complies with its responsibilities in international human-rights law. Two other international groups, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki Watch (based in New York) and Amnesty International, have also regularly sent observers to Northern Ireland.

Committee on the Administration of Justice

The CAJ has regularly called for changes to the justice system and the RUC. In early 1996 the organisation decided to send observers to as many of the disputed parades as was feasible. The remit of these observers was somewhat different from the monitors deployed by the CCDC and INNATE. CAJ observers do not intervene but rather observe what takes place between police and both marchers and protesters. CAJ observers are expected to note a number of aspects of contentious events. These include:

  • police/army attitudes and behaviour;
  • strategies of crowd control, including issues around dispersal and weaponry;
  • impartiality and policing decisions; and
  • treatment of marchers and protesting groups.

The CAJ believes that by having observers present it is possible that the RUC and others will take more care over their utilisation of physical force. In essence, it is attempting to make the RUC accountable for its actions by witnessing, recording, documenting and reporting on police approaches and behaviour at contentious public assemblies.

The CAJ draws on around 60 volunteers who since 1996 have visited more than 20 locations where there have been parades disputes. They have used as few as two monitors at some events but on occasions have deployed up to 16. Monitors attempt to position themselves to view the policing operation from the perspective of both marchers and protesters. The observers work to a set of guidelines and always carry corporate identification. The CAJ guidelines stress the non-interventionist nature of the observing role:

There are a number of organisations currently involved in mediation work around contentious parades. However CAJ is not one of them, and it is essential that all observers are willing to abide by our neutrality regarding the conflicting rights thrown up by this issue. We take no position as to whether a particular parade should go ahead or be rerouted. Our concern is that whatever the outcome the state acts, and is seen to act, in an impartial manner which complies with that required under international law. (Guidelines for CAJ Observers, 1998)

The guidelines make it clear that monitors must make their presence known to all the parties involved and be mindful of personal safety. With only occasional exceptions the CAJ has found the RUC ready to facilitate volunteers. While nationalist communities have welcomed the presence of monitors, unionists have often been suspicious of the organisation. This is most probably because the CAJ is known for its critical analysis of the role of the RUC and emergency legislation and therefore can be perceived as pro-nationalist. The CAJ has tried to counter such perceptions by making it clear that it is interested in ensuring standards of human rights are applied equally to all members of society.

In fact, one can detect more positive recognition of this position in recent years as increased conflict between unionism and the police has raised awareness of issues such as the use of plastic bullets. As a result, members of the Orange Order sought out CAJ observers so that they could take statements on the clashes during the 1998 Drumcree stand-off; the CAJ also took statements on alleged RUC assaults in Lisburn during that period (Just News, September 1998). Furthermore, the CAJ has publicised some of these issues in the media.

CAJ monitors provide written reports of their findings at any given situation, but they recognise that members of the public are also important observers. Therefore, in compiling evidence about a particular situation, they often take statements from people who have witnessed what has taken place. The CAJ has also utilised video and photographic equipment for recording at events, although it acknowledges that such recording must be used with care so as not to exacerbate the situation or to have legal implications which might make future work more problematic. The CAJ uses a variety of methods to raise public awareness of issues deriving from its work on public-order policing. The most substantial piece of work was the 1996 report The Misrule of Law. This examined the ‘marching season’ by looking at the policy and practice of public order policing; the use of plastic bullets by the RUC and army; evidence of events in Derry, on the Ormeau Road, and at Drumcree; and international and legal perspectives on policing the parading disputes. In the recommendations the CAJ:

  • called for the establishment of an independent international inquiry into police operational decision-making, policy, sectarianism and misbehaviour during the 1996 marching season;
  • renewed its call for a commission to look into at all aspects of policing;
  • renewed calls for withdrawal of plastic bullets from the police armoury; and
  • called for increased police accountability.

The CAJ also called for greater legal clarity on the competing rights to hold parades and protests. After the marching season in 1997 the CAJ produced a follow-up report, Policing the Police, and a video was released exploring the issues surrounding the policing of the marching season. The following year it issued a short document entitled Public Order Policing 1998. In both these reports the CAJ acknowledged that the RUC had made some improvements in public-order policing, with regard to identification of individual officers, better communication with protesters and greater restraint compared with the low point of 1996. But it also reasserted a number of the criticisms made in previous years, highlighted areas of apparent inconsistency in police practice and emphasised the need for transparent and accountable policing.

As well as publishing reports, the CAJ aims to influence local and international opinion through organising conferences and meetings and attempts to engage the RUC and British government and associated institutions such as the Police Authority. In a sense, through the use of observers and the collection of witness reports, the CAJ has attempted to subject the policing of public disorder to an independent form of accountability. While some find it easy to dismiss the findings that the CAJ has published, the reports from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary for 1996 and 1997 both carry substantial criticisms of the RUC, with regard to its training and operational approach to public-order policing. Independent monitoring of police practice could therefore be a useful adjunct to future structures of accountability established as part of the wider reform of policing in Northern Ireland.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are distinct and separate bodies but their monitors have worked closely in Northern Ireland and we therefore consider them together. Monitors with both organisations undertake a similar role to CAJ monitors and have at times worked closely with that organisation. However, unlike the CAJ, neither group has mobilised large numbers of volunteers; instead they have relied on having one or two monitors maintain a presence at a small number of locations, while also collecting evidence from witnesses after the event. Both groups work to a very specific remit, examining the application of UN human-rights principles and the organisation’s Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement, as well as monitoring compliance with domestic legislation on human rights. In relation to the parades disputes they have focused on the responsibilities of government and on the role of the police in protecting basic human rights.

Human Rights Watch produced a major report in 1997, To Serve Without Favour: Policing, Human Rights and Accountability in Northern Ireland. This covered a broad range of issues around policing and paramilitary activity but had specific sections and recommendations on the policing of parades based on evidence gathered after the 1996 marching season. It followed this up by sending over an observer during July 1997, 1998 and 1999, principally to monitor events at Drumcree and on the Ormeau Road in Belfast. It makes its findings known to the British government and the Parades Commission. During 1998 it also ran a web site with information from its observer team.

Amnesty International has had a lower profile in monitoring the parades disputes, although it has had a similar presence to Human Rights Watch over recent years, concentrating on the main disputed parades in early July. In the past AI has published reports on Northern Ireland but it has yet to publish anything on the current disputes over parades.

For each of these three groups, monitoring the policing of contentious parades has been an extension of their critique of the activities of the security forces and part of a broader interest in human-rights issues in Northern Ireland. The CAJ’S work in particular has been valuable in so far as it has monitored a wide range of events across Northern Ireland and has developed and refined its practice over four years during which there have been widespread changes in the legal and political frameworks governing parades. Over that time they have made a number of changes in the way they have approached their work, notably in their attempts to improve contacts with the loyal orders and the wider Protestant community. Similarly, the many reports they have published have been a valuable contribution to the broader debate.

Solidarity monitors

Many, if not all, of the groups we categorise as solidarity monitors would also consider themselves to be monitoring human-rights abuses. But whereas the CAJ attempts to monitor the relationship between the police and all sections of society, solidarity monitors tend to have an allegiance with, or sympathy for, one section of society, and therefore focus on a narrow range of relationships. In the case of the groups that have monitored in Northern Ireland in recent years, this allegiance has been with the nationalist community

Pat Finucane Centre

The Pat Finucane Centre (PFC), established in Derry in 1989, shares many concerns with the CAJ about policing and justice but it also takes an overtly critical position on British involvement in Ireland. It has expressed support for the position of the residents’ groups and has produced a number of reports that critically examine loyal-order parades (Pat Finucane Centre 1995, 1996, 1997).

PFG monitors have not only regularly visited a number of contentious areas but the centre has also facilitated international observers becoming involved in Northern Ireland. Over recent years it has brought over observers from the USA, Canada and Germany, some with particular expertise in policing. Its main areas of interest have been Derry, and the nearby disputes in Bellaghy and Dunloy Two detailed reports have been compiled from witness accounts in the nationalist community. One Day in August was a response to the disturbances arising from the Apprentice Boys parade in Derry on August 12th 1995, and In the Line of Fire detailed the disturbances in Derry following the Drumcree stand off in July 1996. Both reports were highly critical of the role of the RUC in policing the city, particularly in the use of plastic bullets, and they called for an international inquiry into the death of Dermot McShane.

Unlike the role accepted by the CAJ monitors, PFG members have been willing to intervene in a number of situations and have been involved in negotiations with the RUC. Its members played a particularly prominent role during a 19-hour stand-off between marchers, police and protesters in Bellaghy on August 11th to 12th 1996. The dispute at this parade was eventually resolved peacefully and seems to have established the parameters for subsequent marches through the village.

Other Irish monitors

Most interest in the parades disputes has come from people and groups based in the north, but there has been a consistent interest shown by politicians and a small number of groups from the republic. From the earliest days of the current cycle of protests, residents’ groups have sought to increase the political pressure by seeking support for their case from the Irish government. Regular visits have been made to Dublin and meetings have been held with the taoiseach and other ministers, but suggestions that the Irish government should send a representative to monitor the events have been resisted. Nevertheless a small number of TDs have maintained an interest and have shown support by visiting some of the key locations on the day of the parade. In 1996 they produced a report based on their observations. Apart from this political interest, two groups have maintained a regular presence at parade disputes.

Table Campaign

The Table Campaign is based in Dublin and was founded in 1996. It grew from a belief by a group of activists that there was a lack of awareness in the republic of human-rights and social-justice issues in the north. Its aims are to ‘create and foster dialogue at the political and community level on issues underlying the conflict in Ireland’ and to ‘foster awareness of the reality of the human rights situation pertaining to this conflict and to campaign on these issues’. The Table Campaign has worked on a number of issues but has particularly concentrated on contentious parades. It first sent monitors to the Tour of the North parade in June 1996 and had observers in a number of areas in 1997 and 1998. It made a submission to the Independent Review of Parades and Marches, and further reports have been produced by monitoring teams. The work of the Table Campaign has developed through its early experiences. By 1997 a co-ordination team was able to produce clear guidelines which included the wearing of identification badges, informing the RUC and the Orange Order of the presence of monitors and the development of a basic command structure. The group remains small but it continues to monitor at a select number of locations.

International groups

The 1998 and 1999 marching seasons brought a proliferation of international monitoring groups to Northern Ireland. More than 80 individuals from a range of groups, predominately from the USA and Canada, came to monitor the parades disputes. These included two US congressmen, as well as Canadian elected representatives. Although they had a variety of aims and approaches, many worked in close conjunction with the residents’ groups, in the main they were based in the Garvaghy Road and lower Ormeau areas and they focused on the parade disputes in early July.

International monitors have become a distinctive and highly visible feature of the disputes, many wearing colourful T-shirts or tabards to distinguish themselves. Each of the groups have aims and objectives centred on human rights and social justice and work to a set of guidelines. Although they were given a critical press in 1998, such groups can have an important role to play. For example, some contained people experienced in dealing with public events and they were willing, in certain circumstances, to act as intermediaries and to reduce tension or resolve minor disputes. They should therefore be treated with no less legitimacy than other monitors.

Irish Parades Emergency Committee

The New York-based Irish Parades Emergency Committee (JPEG) was formed before the 1997 marching season. In 1998 35 volunteers came to Northern Ireland and each monitor had a day’s training before departure. Its main aim was to observe and record human-rights violations and to report those back to politicians in the US. As well as attending parades, members of the delegation made efforts to talk to a wide range of people, including unionist politicians and people involved with the Orange Order. In 1997 it produced the Parade Observers Guide Book for potential volunteers, which was updated, revised and refined in 1998. While the guidebook suggests that volunteers were there to ‘observe loyalist parades’, in the main they were concerned with relations between the nationalist community and the RUC. IPEG recognised that its presence in particular situations might deter the use of violence and volunteers did not rule out facilitating dialogue in certain circumstances. It sent observers to parades on the Garvaghy Road, the Ormeau Road and the Springfield Road in Belfast.

Peace Watch Ireland

Peace Watch Ireland was founded in 1994 to work in solidarity with Irish human-rights and social-justice organisations. Its role in monitoring at parade disputes developed in 1996 when members attended a conference run by the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community and then went to the Apprentice Boys parade in Derry in August. As with the JPEG it has close affinity with the position of residents’ groups and has facilitated representatives of the residents’ groups on trips to the US. Members have made efforts to talk to key loyalists. In 1996 Peace Watch Ireland published a report on the Black Institution parade in Newtownbutler and the Apprentice Boys parade in Derry on August 10th and the stand-off involving Orangemen, police and residents in Bellaghy from August 11th to 12th. In 1997 it produced a report, Looking into the Abyss, which concentrated on events on the Garvaghy Road (an edited version was included in the book on the Garvaghy Road dispute published in 1999). Both reports are written in an emotive style and highlight the role Peace Watch Ireland members played, particularly in Bellaghy and Derry, in facilitating a peaceful resolution to problems. Both reports make a list of recommendations on the conduct of the RUC and the possibilities for resolving such disputes.

Coalition for Peace in Ireland /Information on Ireland Campaign

These Canadian groups have been monitoring parades disputes since 1996. Their interest has again been focused on the Ormeau Road and the Garvaghy Road, following responses to invitations from the residents’ groups in those areas to monitor contentious parades. Their delegations have included politicians from Quebec and Ontario, trade unionists, churchmen and human rights activists, not all of whom would be sympathetic to republicans. In 1997 and 1998 they met the chief constable and local RUC officers, the Orange Order and a range of local human-rights groups (the CAJ, the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights) and political parties (including the Democratic Unionist Party and the Progressive Unionist Party). They acknowledge that they can have little influence in Northern Ireland, although they try to facilitate communication with the police if useful and they hope that their presence serves to deter violence. Their principal aim, however, is to influence public opinion in Canada by producing reports based on their observations and distributing these in Canada and more widely over the Internet (CPI/IIC 1997).

Each of the international groups draws upon the legitimacy of human-rights issues and the struggle for justice in the world to take up the position of monitors in the parade disputes. Unlike Human Rights Watch and Amnesty they take a partisan stance on the disputes. It would be wrong, however, to depict their position as totally uncritical: most of them make some attempt to understand unionist or loyalist opinion. In general, they see their presence as decreasing the likelihood of human-rights violations. Most are prepared to intervene if necessary Each of these groups also aim to influence political and public opinion on the parading issue outside Northern Ireland and in some circumstances they have attempted to engage the RUC on policing practices.

However, the approach taken by such groups in working in solidarity with the nationalist community does in many cases reduce their effectiveness. In 1998 and 1999 the major friction and potential for conflict was between the police and the Protestant community. In both years many international monitors maintained a presence on the Garvaghy and the lower Ormeau Roads while very little happened, yet showed little interest in the policing of loyalist protesters on the other side of the barriers. For some people this only served to undermine their proclaimed position as human-rights monitors.


This brief survey of the groups from Northern Ireland, the republic, the USA and Canada, who have been most consistently involved in monitoring the parades disputes reveals a number of differences in approach, interest and focus of these groups. However, they have a number of features in common:

  • Their principle intentions are to monitor the actions of the police or other parties to the disputes and to deter them from the abuse of human rights and from engaging in violent behaviour. They aim to do this primarily through their presence at the scene. Some of the international monitors describe themselves as witnesses, and in some sense this defines their position well. Their aim is not to convince or deter through rational argument but rather to encourage the other actors to reflect on what they do and what the consequences of acting in a certain way might be if they are being observed.
  • The visibility of such monitors is an important factor. If the key actors are not aware of the monitors how can they act as a deterrent? Many monitors do in fact make themselves visible by wearing coloured tabards or clothing with the words monitor or observer printed on them, others identify themselves with badges or signs. However some groups choose not to identify themselves in this manner but rather inform the key actors that they are, or will be, present and will be observing. In this case the knowledge of the presence, or the potential presence, of observers is the key factor. In the same way that the potential for getting caught is claimed to deter criminal activity, it is assumed that the potential for being observed should deter or reduce the likely abuse of human rights.
  • Monitors derive their significance and influence not from their personal status but as representatives of organisations regarded as independent, impartial and honest. In general, the identity of the individual monitors is irrelevant. In practice, many of the groups build personal relationships with key actors or local people, and while this may enhance status among one community it may create problems of impartiality for the other.
  • Many monitoring groups have also published reports. The CAJ has published three documents and a number of articles which draw on its experiences at disputed parades. Human Rights Watch similarly included a section on the parades disputes in its recent report. The CAJ documents have been the most wide-ranging in their critique of public-order policing and most valuable in so far as the more recent pieces have provided a reflection on changes in police practice over the years. A number of the us and Canadian groups have published reports in their own countries. These have been used to lobby politicians and other influential parties and in a number of cases have been taken up in the media. Most have maintained a critical analysis of both the police and the loyal orders. In general these have served as useful contributions to the wider debate, even if they have had little impact in Northern Ireland.

Despite these broad similarities, the groups have different interests, aims and strategies. While all emphasise their independence, they would not all claim to be neutral and they are not all interested in observing the same series of interactions on the ground. In both their common approaches and the differences in practical emphasis and focus, the groups are comparable to two of the four styles of monitoring we identified from the examples in other countries:

(1) Observer monitors: The CAJ, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International follow an approach that emphasises neutrality and impartiality and focuses concern on the abuse of human rights. Their interest is in the actions of the police towards groups marching and protesting, rather than what those parties themselves might be doing. They do not take a position on the parades disputes and they do not intervene or get involved in any way on the ground. Rather, they hope that their presence will be sufficient to deter or restrict police abuse of human rights. This is comparable to the approach taken by Sheffield Policewatch and the west-coast chapters of the National Lawyers Guild.

(2) Partisan monitors: members of the Pat Finucane Centre and the international monitoring groups fall in the category of partisan observers, in so far as they identify or are identified with one community rather than taking a strictly neutral stance. Each of these groups either supports, or would be seen to be close to, the nationalist community. Many describe themselves as human-rights monitors but focus on the relationship between the nationalist community and the police and have less interest in the relationship between the police and the unionist community. Each of the groups said that they would be willing to intervene on the ground if it proved useful. This approach is similar to that taken by the New York chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

Although some groups are willing to engage in a practical way, none except the South African monitors attends events specifically to intervene with all parties, to reduce tension and prevent outbreaks of violence. However, there are a number of bodies in Northern Ireland whose intentions are primarily to intervene in such situations, and we will consider them in more detail in the next chapter.

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