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Independent Intervention

Monitoring the police, parades and public order

6. Monitoring public order


We have identified a number of groups that attend disputed parades to monitor human-rights issues. There are also several individuals and organisations that take an active interest in helping to ensure a peaceful outcome at contentious parades and in maintaining public order at times of heightened tension, without having a specific focus on human rights. These include those members of the marching orders who have a responsibility for stewarding parades and other sections of the community who have taken an interest in stewarding sections of the crowd (see next chapter). But there are other groups with a responsibility for, or a local interest in, the issue. These include organisations involved in mediation, the authorised officers of the Parades Commission, and groups which have a broader community base. Few would necessarily be immediately perceived as monitors, but they clearly fall within the theoretical framework set out in chapter 1.


There have been a variety of attempts to resolve the disputes over parades through both short - and long-term mediation. A number of groups and individuals have been active in trying to facilitate this. These include religious leaders, members of community-relations and reconciliation groups and in some cases individuals who are known and respected by all parties to the dispute, as well as professional bodies like the Mediation Network for Northern Ireland. Much of this activity would be considered, by mediators, as crisis management rather than formal mediation. It aims to defuse immediate and localised tensions rather than addressing the wider issues. However, mediation has been successful in reducing violence at a number of locations over the past four years. Kelly (1998) has provided extensive and detailed documentation and evaluation of the work of a range of mediators and there is no need to duplicate her work. But we will briefly place one such group within the context of this report.

The Mediation Network for Northern Ireland

The Mediation Network became closely associated with the parades issue following its involvement in the dispute over the 1995 Drumcree church parade, when members of the organisation helped to facilitate a peaceful resolution to the first of the stand-offs. Since then, the Mediation Network has worked in a number of locations, most prominently in Dunloy where it continues to be involved in attempts to resolve the local impasse.

Members of the network attend contentious parades to observe the flow of events, although the main purpose of their presence is to be available should a problem arise or a dispute flare up between the key players. In many cases the mediators will have been involved in discussions and meetings with a range of parties in an attempt to resolve the dispute in the run-up to a particular parade and will continue to meet and discuss the issue afterwards. Although mediation is considered a long process, it is accepted that members of the network will also engage in short-term crisis management to reduce tensions. However, crisis management is only seen as part of the process and not an end in itself. The role of the mediators is therefore different from other monitors we have discussed. Their principal interest is not to monitor the unfolding of events, but to be ready to intervene if required. They do not need to be highly visible on such occasions and usually choose to remain discreetly in the background.

Unlike many of the observer groups, the Mediation Network does not see its role as influencing wider public opinion. Rather it sees itself as being involved in localised conflict resolution and, by its very nature, most of this work is conducted away from the public gaze. The organisation does not therefore publish evaluations of the mediation process or other aspects of its work. But this does not mean that it avoids all publicity. For example, in July 1996 the network issued a full statement explaining its understanding of the agreement reached in Portadown the previous year, to distance itself from the RUC interpretation of the resolution to the stand-off. But in most situations the network prefers to encourage the parties to the dispute to speak for themselves.

Authorised officers of the Parades Commission

Since 1998 the Parades Commission has been empowered to issue legally binding determinations over contentious parades. By extension, the commission is expected to verify whether any conditions it imposes are complied with or ignored. The reactions to such conditions can be taken into consideration in making future determinations. Moreover, the commission has issued a code of conduct which sets out the standards of behaviour expected of all participants at parades. The organisation therefore has both a need and a responsibility to monitor parades to check the behaviour of those present.

The Parades Commission is made up of seven members, supported by a small, full-time secretariat. It also uses a number of part-time field workers, known as authorised officers (AOS), who are employed, trained and supervised by the Mediation Network for Northern Ireland. Their responsibilities include making contacts and building relationships with parties to the disputes, briefing the Parades Commission, facilitating mediation and monitoring parades.

The AOs work in pairs, each team responsible for three or more locations. They monitored most parades in 1998 and 1999 for which the Parades Commission issued a determination but there was no real attempt to monitor non-contentious parades. The primary responsibilities of AOS in attending parades were to ensure that the conditions imposed in a determination were adhered to and that those marching and those protesting complied with the code of conduct. However, given the wide-ranging nature of their remit and the contacts they built up with many of the key actors, it was difficult to restrict their activities simply to observing events. In a number of areas, the AOS were drawn into a more interventionist role on the day of the parade to facilitate communication between the police and groups on the ground. They were able to do this because of the work they had done before the parade, but also because key parties to the disputes recognised that they could play a role as intermediaries.

As representatives of the Parades Commission, the AOS were not independent, but it was widely acknowledged that they could facilitate communication between the other parties. In a number of locations, the AOS were able to clarify problems by acting as intermediaries between groups who would not talk face-to-face. In more than one instance this appears to have reduced the likelihood of serious disturbances. In each of these cases the police acknowledged the potential of the AOs; indeed, in a number of situations the police adjusted their activities on the basis of recommendations from AOs. But the AOS could not impose themselves on a situation: they were only able to act effectively because other parties were willing to accept them as appropriate facilitators. In most cases the AOS intervened to address the concerns of nationalist protesters, since the loyal orders refused to recognise the Parades Commission and therefore would not engage in dialogue. Nevertheless, there were a few instances where loyalist protesters were willing to meet the AOS and where they were able to mediate effectively on the ground.

The AOS had a number of successes, but it also became clear that engaging in more interventionist forms of monitoring could restrict other activities. For one thing, it reduced their ability to observe the wider flow of events. AOS who acted as problem-solvers or mediators at parades could not easily monitor compliance with the code of conduct or with the conditions imposed in the determination. In part, this limitation was caused by the fact that there usually no more than two AOS at any parade. Working in small teams allows for a degree of flexibility and permits local improvisation. Yet, even without the demands of crisis mediation, it imposes constraints on thee ability to observe comprehensively what are always complex events. As groups like the CAJ have recognised, larger teams are necessary to monitor even small events. Larger teams also allows some people to concentrate on observing while others are able to respond to unexpected developments. Although there is a range of work that monitors can undertake at public events, they cannot necessarily do more than one thing at a time. In recognition of this restriction, the Parades Commission recruited a small team of part-time monitors, who would work with the AOs and whose remit would be to observe compliance with the constraints imposed in its determinations.

Community-based activity

Community groups and activists have been involved in a wide range of activities aimed at reducing local tensions and preventing inter-community violence in sensitive areas. Sometimes the tension rises as a result of particular local events or parades, but sometimes it is a product of a more general reaction to events elsewhere in Northern Ireland. Over the past few years, protests over the Drumcree church parade have led to widespread tension, resulting in rioting and other violence. Although there has been extensive community-based activity in response to these problems, this has been poorly documented. Here we offer a brief review of four community-based initiatives.

Community Development Centre, North Belfast

A very distinctive community-based monitoring has been developed in north Belfast since 1997, in response to widespread violence during the 1996 marching season. North Belfast is a complex mosaic of Catholic and Protestant communities and has been the site of extensive military and paramilitary violence throughout the ‘troubles’. In many areas persistent violence at the interfaces between the two communities has resulted in physical barriers (‘peace lines’) being built to segregate local populations. Such barriers have continued to be erected during the paramilitary ceasefires.

There was extremely high tension across north Belfast at the time of the ‘Tour of the North’ parade in June 1996 and extensive violence throughout the area during the protests over the Drumcree church parade the following month, continuing at a lower level through the autumn and winter (Jarman 1997b). One of the key issues identified by local people as exacerbating the problem was the breakdown of lines of communication within and between communities. This allowed rumours and fears to flourish and encouraged a mobilisation of crowds on the streets. This in turn encouraged rumours to spread in neighbouring communities, resulting in further mobilisations. Staff at the Community Development Centre (cDc) were centrally involved in trying to stabilise the situation, as well as supporting and advising some of the 110 households displaced by the violence and intimidation.

After the worst of the violence had passed, the CDC began to consider how the community sector could develop a more effective response to such trouble, should a similar situation arise the following year. It proposed working with existing groups and activists, connected to the centre, to create a network of people willing to monitor and respond to rumours or incidents of violence, and thereby attempt to reduce tension in their own area. To improve their effectiveness it was proposed that members of the network would be provided with mobile telephones, to ensure that lines of communication could remain open between neighbouring areas, across interfaces and with the statutory sector.

Making Belfast Work agreed to fund the project and 14 community-based phones were used during July and August 1997. The network was coordinated by the CDC and covered a range (but not all) of the most vulnerable interface communities in north Belfast. The project was deemed a success and a cost-effective utilisation of resources. The following year, the number of phones was increased to 23, rising again in 1999 so that the primary network included 30 phones covering 25 interface areas. In each case the phones are held and managed by community groups and lines are kept open 24 hours a day from mid-June to mid-August. The network has also been linked to the three local RUC stations and other statutory bodies, including the Housing Executive and social services.

Community monitors acted in a number of ways. They responded to calls from across the ‘peace lines’, from neighbouring areas and from the police to dispel rumours and clarify what was happening in their area. This was particularly important when people became concerned at the sound of bands playing, the sight of bonfires burning or, as in 1998, at crowds gathered to protest against the rerouting of the Drumcree parade. They also reacted to calls from neighbouring areas when minor incidents, such as stone-throwing, had the potential to escalate. They went on to the streets to prevent crowds gathering at sensitive locations or to encourage them to disperse, and to deal with minor violence. In some areas community activists also maintained a presence on the streets during the night, to make sure trouble did not occur after the pubs closed.

Over the past three years during the most fragile period of the summer, in the build-up to and following the Drumcree parade, north Belfast has remained tense but relatively calm. The level of violence and inter-communal conflict has been considerably lower than in the worst recent case of 1996, and the number of people forced to abandon their homes, as a result of intimidation, has been dramatically reduced.

Perhaps one of the most significant of the unintended consequences of the network was that the phones allowed for direct dialogue to be resumed between some areas for the first time in several months. Increases in tension always create difficulties for cross-community dialogue but the need to work together to maintain a degree of peace helped foster trust in a number of areas. In some cases the phone calls during July have helped initiate regular meetings between groups divided by ‘peace lines’. All the groups taking part in the network considered it to have played an important role in helping to keep the peace. A more extensive and detailed evaluation of this project has been published by the CDC (Jarman 1999).

In this example the monitors are local community activists, members of community groups and often people with well-known political affiliations. They are not in any sense independent. Rather, their ability and capacity to have an influence on the local situation comes from their position and status within that community. On many occasions the phone-holders started out as observers, simply keeping an eye on what was happening on the streets in their area. But as the situation changed so did their role, often rapidly leading to direct engagement - facilitating lines of communication in their community, across the sectarian divide and with the police. Often phone-holders also had to engage in crisis management, to try to stop tension escalating into violence. All members of the network have however acknowledged that they could only have a restraining influence on events at the earliest stages of trouble. If rioting broke out, they could do little except withdraw and observe from a distance.

The monitoring work carried out by the community network in north Belfast has been effective for a number of reasons. It draws on an existing network of groups and individuals which had been supported by development work at the CDC for some years. The people who have been involved in the monitoring work have extensive knowledge of their own community, of neighbouring communities and of the wider local context. They can therefore draw on other local networks when necessary At the same time, other bodies were also working towards the same aim of minimising violence and disruption. Although there was trouble in some loyalist parts of north Belfast in 1998, many key political and paramilitary groups and individuals were doing what they could to restrain trouble. In the main, violence was restricted to clashes between specific loyalist areas and the RUC.

The experiences of the past three years in north Belfast illustrate that there have been some significant changes during the peace process. People in many communities have shown a clear desire to avoid extensive, if localised, violence during the marching season. As such, people have been prepared to engage in pragmatic working relationships with the police in many areas. The use of the mobile phones has allowed communication to take place in a discreet manner at a time when there are still numerous concerns, particularly in the nationalist community, about having any formal contacts with the RUC. At the same time the broad base of the network and the incremental nature of the working relationships has encouraged the police to allow local activists the opportunity to resolve local problems, rather than treating everyone on the streets as a potential rioter or as a threat to police authority.

The community network has also been able to be effective in part because of two other key factors. First, the extensive community-development work undertaken over previous years through the CDC across north Belfast and has helped consolidate the community infrastructure and provided support to local groups. Secondly, the network has always worked with a range of other interested parties who were also trying to restrain violence and maintain public order, including statutory agencies, political parties and paramilitary organisations. When all these sections of society are working together it is relatively easy to minimise public disorder.

Peace and Reconciliation Group, Derry

The Peace and Reconciliation Group in Derry was founded in 1976. Members of the group have been present on many occasions at times of civil disorder in the city and have monitored each of the local parade disputes since 1995. As a group aiming to foster good community relations, it allows of the possibility of intervening in particular circumstances. Individual members are well known, they do not usually ask for any particular privileges of movement, they do not feel it necessary to wear identification and they tend to stand with the crowd to observe what happens. They do not publish reports after events but prefer to work through private feedback to particular groups.

As well as monitoring parades, the group has been involved in a community-based monitoring project similar to that described for north Belfast. This has been based on the two small adjacent estates of Currynierin and Tullyally, on the southeastern edge of Derry. In 1998 locally-based community activists used mobile phones to keep lines of communication open across the interface and to respond to rumours, the gathering of crowds and minor acts of violence. As with the north Belfast example, this appears to have been a successful community initiative, which succeeded in restraining intercommunal violence during the tensions of the marching season. Funding was obtained to ensure that the lines of communication could remain more durably in place, the phones remaining with the community activists throughout the year rather than being taken back at the end of the perceived period of tension. The scheme has thus become a more permanent monitoring project.

Women Together/Independent Observer Network

Women Together for Peace was founded in the early 1970s as a cross-community, non-political group. Members of the organisation began their monitoring activities at the protest by loyalists at the Catholic Church in the Harryville area of Ballymena in October 1996. This protest was nominally in response to the protests against parades in Dunloy, and in May 1997 the group also began to monitor the parade disputes in the village. It monitored each week at Harryville until the protests ceased after 87 weeks and it has continued to monitor parades in Dunloy.

Monitoring at Harryville was considered to be awkward. The group initially found it difficult to find a position from which it was possible to observe the full range of actors and events and which also conveyed their intended impartiality. It was soon perceived as favouring the Catholics attending mass and, consequently, the Protestant protesters were reluctant to engage in dialogue with members of the monitoring teams. Over time and through a regular presence, some dialogue did become possible with the protesters, but it was not particularly productive. The protesters were not especially welcoming of any interest from ‘outsiders’, and in the main did not court publicity except for the protest itself.

At Dunloy, the Women Together group operate in two teams of two or three members, with one team monitoring in the village itself and the other concentrating its attention on the Orange Hall. Monitors wear coloured tabards and carry identification badges. By maintaining a regular presence in the village and at the hall, as well as its independent status, the group has built up reasonable relations with many of the key participants. The two teams between them monitor the activities of the loyal orders, the residents’ groups, general supporters of both parties and the police. They aim to have meetings with the local sub-divisional commander of the RUC before and after each parade and meet other participants whenever possible. They also produce a written report immediately after each event, which is sent to the police, the residents’ group and the loyal orders.

Although the original intention was simply to observe proceedings, the monitors have engaged more actively on a number of occasions. They carry mobile phones to keep in touch and these have been used a number of times to check rumours as to what the ‘other side’ is doing. They have thereby acted as an effective independent channel of communication and thus helped calm fears and reduce tension among both residents and members of the loyal orders. This facet of their work is similar to that carried out by the CDC in north Belfast.

In 1998 the members of Women Together who had been involved in the monitoring resigned from the organisation. They announced that they would now be known as the Independent Observer Network (ION) and intended to continue their work in Dunloy. They also indicated that they were exploring the possibility of expanding their activities to include another nearby location.

Meath Peace Group

The Meath Peace Group aims to improve community relations to aid the peace process. It has taken an active interest in Northern Ireland since 1993. The group arranges annually a series of public meetings in Navan, Co Meath, several of which have looked at parades, human rights and policing. The group has been particularly successful in arranging meetings at which unionists and Orangemen and supporters of various residents’ groups have aired their views. These meetings have helped to foster a dialogue among the opposing parties, as well as encourage a greater understanding of the issues north and south of the border.

In its monitoring work the group has paid particular attention to parade disputes in Roslea and Newtownbutler in the border areas of Co Fermanagh. It has worked extensively with the Enniskillen Together organisation, whose members have acted as mediators for a number of years in both villages. While the approach of the Meath Peace Group has been primarily to act as an observer with human-rights and community-relations concerns, it has been prepared to play a small role in reducing tensions where possible, such as facilitating the removal of a disputed flag. It has also produced reports on its work each year since 1996.


We have reviewed the work of a range of organisations involved in diverse monitoring activities. In spite of the diversity of aims, interests and approaches we can highlight a number of common themes which distinguish them from the varieties of observer-monitor discussed in the previous chapter:

  • They are all willing to intervene on the ground and actively to try to maintain the peace. In contrast to the various human-rights monitors, the community activists, the Parades Commission AOS and the mediators all place an emphasis on taking practical action if problems arise at public assemblies, rather than simply observing events.

  • In most cases this engagement involves little more than talking. Use of physical force remains the prerogative of the police. In most situations interventionist monitoring involves persuading people to calm down, to move away or to move along. In other instances it has involved clarifying facts to dispel rumours and thereby allay fears. Monitors do not have the capacity to threaten; they can only reason and suggest pragmatic responses to an unfolding situation.

  • In most cases the monitors intervene between one party and the police, rather than between two rival parties. The activists working with the community groups engage with other members of their community; the women monitoring at Dunloy have separate teams working in the village and at the Orange Hall. As tension rises the community monitors may become the first line of response while the police hold back, but there is always a threshold of pressure or violence at which the police take over and the monitors withdraw.

  • Community-based monitors are not independent or necessarily impartial. The very effectiveness of the community monitors derives from their position within an organisation or as a member of a particular community. Similarly, the authorised officers are utilised because they are acting with the authority of the Parades Commission. Mediators are in a slightly different position as they may well define themselves as independent and impartial, but this is always a difficult position to maintain in practice.

  • Although the monitors nominally draw their authority from their role within an organisation or a community, their personal status is also important. Interventionist monitors are not anonymous figures: they are often well known to the parties involved. Success may also be achieved through drawing on their status as a representative of an organisation and their personal relationships with parties to the dispute.

  • Finally, and in contrast to the groups discussed in the previous chapter, the interventionist monitors place less emphasis on producing publications. A number of groups have produced reports but in general their emphasis has been on influencing events as they unfold and/or promoting discussion, debate and reflection among the key actors. In the main, this activity takes place out of the public eye.

In each of these factors - intervening, persuading, partiality, authority and personal status - the monitors differ from the observers who watch quietly and discreetly while remaining impartial, aloof, impersonal and anonymous. Although the two approaches to monitoring appear very different, they are also complementary, with one focusing on making an immediate response to the situation while the other takes a longer-term view.

Very often, a number of different monitors will be present at a contentious event. It is quite likely that there will be local and international human-rights monitors, solidarity groups, AOS, mediators and community-based monitors all at the one event. They may be interested in the same dispute and the potential for disorder, but they each monitor differing aspects and all work to their own agenda. While some might question the need for such a variety of monitors, we would argue that the various monitoring groups have the potential to play a more significant role at potentially troublesome public events. We will return to this in chapter 8, after we have considered the final category of monitors.

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