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Independent Intervention

Monitoring the police, parades and public order

4. Monitoring in Northern Ireland

During the ‘troubles’ a great deal of work has been undertaken by individuals and NGOS attempting to provide non-violent solutions to highly volatile public-order problems. Many of these have been ad hoc - simply a reaction to the position people found themselves in - and are poorly remembered and documented. Nevertheless, there have been more concerted and structured attempts to act as monitors. This review focuses on the more formal groups, in particular those which have monitored the disputes over parades in the past few years. We begin by reviewing the attempts made to monitor violence and public-order disputes before the ceasefires. In the next chapter we review post-ceasefire monitoring of human-rights issues linked to parades. And in the following chapters we focus on organisations taking a more active role in monitoring, through mediation or the mobilisation of community activists, and more formal stewarding of events.

Monitoring during the ‘troubles’

Although there is an extensive and ever-growing literature on the ‘troubles’, some areas are still poorly documented. In particular, independent and community-based activity constraining inter- and intra-communal violence has received little attention. Here we briefly discuss the role of two groups which attempted to establish independent monitoring projects over the past three decades.

Central Citizens Defence Committee

The Central Citizens Defence Committee (CCDC) developed as a non-violent body monitoring relations between the Catholic community and the army and RUC during the civil disturbances of the late 1960s (Watson 1991). Situated on the Falls Road in Belfast, the CCDC worked mainly in the Falls area but also in the Short Strand, Crumlin Road, Ardoyne and Unity Flats. Tense situations often developed around Orange parades but also, on occasion, at football matches and other events. The CCDC attempted to make itself available in flashpoint areas, simply to observe or to offer channels of communication between the security forces and Catholics. At the outset, the organisation seemed to enjoy substantial of co-operation from the army general officer commanding and the RUC chief constable.

Such interventionist work proved quite successful in the beginning but, as the violence escalated to more concerted paramilitary activity and increasingly oppressive tactics were used by the security forces, the position of the CCDC became more problematic and dangerous. Communication with the police and army became almost impossible and the organisation became increasingly unpopular with republicans, loyalists, the security forces and rioters. This lack of co-operation and legitimacy forced it to use the media to comment on peacemaking. Eventually, the CCDC offices were raided by the army and individual members were frequently threatened, sometimes arrested:

We had missiles hurled at us by rioters; we were harassed by the army; we were threatened by military and paramilitary personnel alike; and finally the gunmen and bombers made it impossible for us to continue our work of observing and intervening. It became too dangerous on the streets! (Watson 1991:9)


The first co-ordinated attempt to monitor recent problems over parades came from the Irish Network for Non-violent Action Training and Education (INNATE), made up of individuals and around 20 groups, principally organised by Rob Fairmichael, advocating non-violent approaches to conflict situations. INNATE developed models and training for monitors and organised observer teams on the Garvaghy Road between 1988 and

1993 (INNATE 1992). In retrospect the people involved in INNATE, showing particular concern for the public-order situation in Portadown, were ahead of their time.

In July 1990 the Drumcree Faith and Justice Group (DFJ), which had been organising peaceful protests in opposition to Orange parades on the Garvaghy Road and attempting to engage the Orange Order, invited INNATE to act as ‘impartial observers for the Drumcree parade. There was recognition, even at that stage, that a drop in the level of violence and changing political conditions meant that the use of ‘observer corps’ had once’ again become viable (INNATE 1992:4). INNATE drew up a code of conduct for observers and decided that they should all wear armbands. There was considerable discussion over whether members should’ simply observe or should, in certain circumstances, intervene (Watson 1991).

INNATE made all groups aware of its role and also that it would make an individual, confidential report available to the police, the DFJ and the Orangemen. Each body would receive a report that referred only to the actions of that group. Afterwards INNATE critically examined the role of the ‘observer corps’, recognising some problems and limitations, but concluded that it had ‘influenced the situation for the better’ (Watson 1991:13). The ‘observer corps’ were used on the Garvaghy Road until 1993 and later on the Ormeau Road in Belfast, after an invitation from the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community (LocC).

In 1992 INNATE published Observing: A Third Party Non-violent Response, in which it developed a mediator-observer model. The report examines arguments for and against the use of observers. It points out that independent observers can be more objective in recording what happens, compared with participants, while the presence of neutral observers is likely to force all sides to ‘be on their best behaviour’. They can provide for the possibility of the mediation, perhaps preventing violent escalation, and their presence can help alleviate feelings of powerlessness local people might have. On the other hand, the report recognises that observers can often do nothing to deal with basic injustices, they can find it difficult to be neutral, they often have no real power and they may just be ‘keeping a lid’ on a situation that will eventually ‘boil over’ (INNATE 1992:4-5). It argues that some of these problems can be overcome by having diverse observer teams and that prevention of violent conflict can allow for long-term resolutions.

The INNATE model of observer-mediator is what we refer to as a monitor. Whilst making observations and reporting back to the parties involved is the main task, on-the-spot intervention is anticipated in certain circumstances. It is worth summarising some of the suggestions in the report:

  • A body should be set up to develop the task of observing in Northern Ireland, recruiting and training volunteers.
  • In particular situations the role of trained observers could be augmented by public figures and observers from outside Northern Ireland.
  • The observer body should look to recruit a minimum of 300 volunteers to allow for the possibility of at least 50 being used in any given situation.

Recruits could be taken from existing bodies.

  • Efforts should be made to raise public awareness of the beneficial role observers can play.
  • The observing body should be independent or based in an organisation that is regarded as independent.
  • The observing body could develop models of observing, refine guidelines and seek to learn more about observing and stewarding internationally.

The lack of a response to a conference on observing held in March 1994 seems to have undermined much of the work being undertaken although people connected with INNATE have remained involved in practical approaches to conflict resolution. It’s always easy with hindsight but given the parades disputes since 1995, and given the escalating costs of policing, one cannot help wondering if a project with relatively modest funding would not easily have paid for itself.

[Report Contents] [List of Reports]

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