Overcoming election violence in the city of Derry

Princeton University This analysis is based in part on research conducted by Michael Scharff and first published in December 2010 by Innovations for Successful Societies. The scoring assigned and the text below represents the Centre’s own work, however, and do not reflect the views of the case study authors, Innovations for Successful Societies, or Princeton University. Quotes included in the text come from interviews carried out in Northern Ireland in December 2010.

After the Troubles had ended and the 1998 Good Friday agreement had been concluded, there were still outbreaks of factional violence in Northern Ireland. Elections were a particular flashpoint, and in the city of Derry there had been riots during the European elections of June 2004. The mainspring of the violence was the presence of police in polling stations on election day. A few months later, a diverse group of politicians, civil servants, community leaders and police worked together on a plan for peaceful elections in the city.

The challenge

The partition of Ireland took place in 1920. The bulk of the northern province of Ulster was to remain outside the newly independent state, and Northern Ireland was created as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There has been since the 1920s a factionalist division between the unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, and the nationalists, who want it to become part of a united Ireland.

The year 1969 brought the outbreak of the Troubles, which continued for a period of about 25 years during which “a number of unsuccessful attempts to restore peace and devolved government to the province were made” [1] before the Irish Republican Army (IRA) declared a ceasefire in August 1994. “Between 1969 and 1999, almost 3,500 people died as a result of political violence.” [2]

Shortly after the ceasefire, the British government entered into the Peace Process. This involved negotiations with “the IRA's political wing”, [3] Sinn Féin, the unionist parties, and the pro-union loyalist parties who were associated with paramilitary groups. After the IRA carried out the Canary Wharf bombing in February 1996, Sinn Féin was excluded from talks until the IRA renewed its ceasefire in July 1997.

The ‘Good Friday agreement’ was signed on 10 April 1998, and was approved by a majority of 42 percent in the Northern Ireland referendum of 22 May 1998. However, violence continued, particularly during elections “and the trigger was always the same, the presence of police at polling places … Despite the reforms in 2001 that suspended Royal Ulster Constabulary and replaced it with an integrated force called the Police Services of Northern Ireland (PSNI), most nationalists still viewed the police as an arm of the British government.” [4]

In June 2004, there were more such disturbances. “Violence erupted ... as police escorted electoral officers and ballot boxes from some polling stations in Derry. The police were attacked with petrol bombs for two consecutive nights at the close of polling in the European elections. Trouble flared in the nationalist Creggan, Shantallow and Ballymagroarty areas of the city.” [5]

The initiative

In the autumn of 2004, Derry’s City Council, comprising unionist, nationalist and republican members, gathered to discuss the problem of violence at elections, with reference to disturbances at the recent European elections in June. “Patricia Murphy (the head of elections in the city for the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland) attended the meeting with Dennis Stanley, the chief electoral officer, who was in charge of elections administration in all of Northern Ireland.” [6]

Stanley suggested relocating five of the six ‘hot-spot’ polling stations. Barry O’Hagan, a Sinn Féin councillor, proposed identifying prominent community leaders who could escort ballot boxes from polling stations instead of police. Stanley rejected his suggestion.

O’Hagan asked community leaders to take his case to Derry’s new police commander, Ricky Russell, who then met privately with Stanley to discuss the problem. Eventually, the Electoral Office announced that the polling stations would remain where they were and that the police would no longer be present during the day or assist with the removal of the ballot boxes. This would be effected by community leaders, who would take them from the polling stations and place them in vans operated by private couriers.

However, “police units would be on standby near each of the polling stations [and a] police helicopter would patrol over the polling stations and send back live video to the command centre, allowing early detection of gathering crowds”. [7] Private security vans travelled to each of the polling stations and retrieved the ballot boxes without incident.

The public impact

There was a considerable reduction in violence during subsequent elections in Derry: no polling station reported a disturbance during the May 2005 UK General Election, for example. “Community worker Tony O'Doherty was among observers at the collection of ballot boxes from Holy Child Primary School in Creggan. He said: ‘Voting is a civil procedure and that's the way it should be. There are hundreds of witnesses here, the integrity of the process is totally preserved. This is a good example of democracy’." [8]

Charlie O’Donnell, the principal of Derry’s Holy Child Primary School, one of the polling stations in question, helped electoral staff to transport the ballot boxes to the courier van. “As we were carrying the ballot boxes out, somebody started to clap and then everybody was applauding,” recalled O’Donnell. “It was just an extraordinary sensation.” [9]

The 2010 General Election was equally peaceful in Derry. In effect, there has been no violence at polling stations since the suspension of the police presence in 2005, and the security procedures for polling stations and transporting ballot boxes enacted then has remained in place.

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.


Public Confidence Strong

There was great public support for the Peace Process (as had been demonstrated by the referendum results) and this extended to all aspects of political life, of which having peaceful elections in Derry was a powerful example. ‘“To an extent, we all welcomed the decision to keep the polling places open and to remove the police,’ said John Campbell, the senior presiding officer at St Eithnes Primary School.” [11] St Eithnes was another of the polling stations that had been flashpoints at elections.

The very positive reaction from the public to Charlie O’Donnell’s involvement in carrying the ballot boxes from his school (see Public impact) was indicative of public confidence in the initiative.

Stakeholder Engagement Strong

“After the 2004 elections, we were trying to come up with a plan,” recalled Murphy. “We had to get all the stakeholders on board.” [10]

The stakeholders in the Derry election initiative were:

  • The Derry councillors, who represented the unionist parties, the nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Féin.
  • The Electoral Office of Northern Ireland, which was represented by Dennis Stanley, the chief electoral officer, and Patricia Murphy, the electoral officer for Derry.
  • The PSNI, represented by Ricky Russell, the Derry police chief.
  • Community leaders, such as the head teacher, Charlie O’Donnell.
  • The voters and other citizens of Derry.

All were fully engaged in the initiative to keep the peace around polling stations during elections in Derry.

Political Commitment Good

There was eventually commitment from all political parties in support of the initiative. The SDLP was opposed to it for some time for fear of fraud, but after Electoral Commission mandated the use of voter photo IDs during elections, they backed the initiative.  The other major political parties had compelling reasons to work towards a solution against electoral violence. Sinn Féin did not recognise the legitimacy of the PSNI and opposed their involvement in elections, which would only cease with the cessation of violence.


Clear Objectives Good

The objectives of the initiative were clear: to ensure that elections in Derry were peaceful, throughout the campaign and at the polling stations during the vote itself, without a police presence. This was in response to continued violence, which reached its post-Troubles peak in the 2004 European elections (see The challenge above).

Evidence Fair

As this was the first peaceful election in 30 years in Londonderry, there were little previous success stories on which to evidence base the policy. However the involvement of a wide range of electoral staff, community workers, police, teachers and clergy would have allowed the initiative to draw on lessons learnt from past experiences.

Feasibility Fair

The key aspect of feasibility was whether the stakeholders would be able to maintain the security of the election, in particular the transporting of the ballot boxes from the polling stations, such as the Holy Child and St Eithnes Primary Schools, to the election count. The plan involved two main thrusts: engaging the communities in keeping the peace; and having the police force in reserve in case there were any riots. The latter was addressed by checking polling stations before voting began, and staff at the polling stations and helicopters circling above them, reporting information to police personnel at Derry police station (see The initiative above). The former involved negotiations between the stakeholders.

“Murphy then met with the community leaders and members of the clergy to hear what they were planning. ‘I remember her asking us to use our power in the community to try and reduce the violence,' said Father Stephen McLaughlin, head of St. Mary’s church in the city. O’Doherty and O’Donnell spoke with as many community members who would listen, and encouraged them to help patrol the streets on Election Day. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein and the [SDLP] drew up lists of individuals they would call on to help keep watch on the streets outside the polling places.” [12]


Management Good

The Derry initiative was largely managed by three people on the day of the 2005 election: Murphy, Russell, and Alex Penney, the police operations and planning inspector in Derry.  O’Doherty and O’Donnell and other community leaders helped persuade community members to remain peaceful, while O’Hagan and the SDLP did the same with the nationalist and republican community. In addition to this, the police helicopter patrol allowed early detection of gathering crowds. Russell and Penney were in frequent contact with Murphy, who spent much of the day driving between the polling stations. She stayed in close contact by mobile phone with O’Doherty and the other community leaders.

Measurement Fair

The objective of this initiative was to reduce or eradicate violence during elections in Derry. Although, there was no specific provision to measure the effectiveness of the initiative, the absence of violence in the subsequent elections can be taken as suitable indicators. There were observers at the polling stations from the Electoral Office, voters and other members of the community and journalists, who were able to witness the behaviour of citizens at the polls.

As O’Doherty said (see also Public impact above), “there are hundreds of witnesses here, the integrity of the process is totally preserved”. [13]

Alignment Strong

There was good alignment between the stakeholders. All the stakeholders collaborated in providing support for the initiative, for example:

  • Community leaders cooperated in putting O’Hagan’s idea for removing police from polling stations to Russell, who was open-minded about the proposal.
  • The Electoral Office and the PSNI took the idea seriously and then came up with a strategy for maintaining security during the election campaign and polling day.
  • The PSNI swept all 32 polling stations in Derry for weapons and bombs on the morning of the election before voting began.
  • The councillors and community leaders cooperated in helping keep the peace at polling stations absent the police.
  • There was constant monitoring of polling stations, carried out principally by Murphy in communication with community leaders and the PSNI.
  • Community leaders were involved in taking ballot boxes to the courier vans after the polling stations had closed.