The Parades Commission uses monitors to observe parades and protest meetings at various locations throughout Northern Ireland. They provide the Commission with valuable reports on each of the events they attend.
The Commission is mindful that the use of properly trained and briefed monitors is critical to supporting the Commission in its duty to 'keep itself generally informed', of the conduct of public processions and protest meetings.
The Commission previously operated with a small team of parade monitors. By early 2002 it advertised in the general press for additional volunteers, who were recruited and trained with the assistance of mediation Network for Northern Ireland.
Monitors are briefed before they attend a parade. This briefing is strictly focussed on the event to be covered and relates only to the circumstances prevailing at that time. Therefore, at any given parade, individual monitors could be given a different list of tasks or priorities. A monitor will be briefed to focus only on certain specific aspects of a parade, rather than attempt to observe and report on the broad spectrum of everything that happens. Given the range of requirements in monitoring a parade, there may be a need to employ several monitors at the same parade. That also explains why the Commission constantly needs to expand its reserve of trained monitors.
The police are informed of the presence of monitors at a specific location. This awareness enables them to help promote the monitor's safety, particularly in more difficult situations. It also enables the police to facilitate the monitor in their role, perhaps in passing through police lines, or attaining a particular observation position, or in being informed of an unfolding situation. Monitors are equipped with mobile phones primarily for safety, but also to communicate with other monitors or Parades Commission staff who may be in attendance. They carry identification cards for the purpose of making themselves known to the police and others. However, monitors are not publicly identifiable by any other means. They do not wear identifying armbands or tabards or any other distinguishing apparel. The Commission would hope that the time will come when it will be able to employ monitors in a way in which they can be identified openly on the streets. Initially this may be at the site of non-contentious parades as opposed to those sites that are more likely to be associated with potential for public disorder. The monitor's role is very much an objective neutral one and it is hoped that all involved in disputes around parades accept and respect their neutrality and professionalism.
While the Commission appoints them, the monitors' reports are based on what they see and hear as neutral observers. To reinforce this point the Commission has drawn up a code of principles for monitors. Amongst other things this emphasizes their independence from the Commission when it comes to monitoring and reporting on parades.
Monitors used by the Parades Commission are members of the public who have responded to an open advertisement requesting their services. They are public-spirited individuals who wish to make a contribution to society.
While they come from a wide range of political and community backgrounds they demonstrate a willingness and ability to act impartially and provide the Commission with unbiased, factual reports. Monitors are not imbued with any specific powers and can only request assistance from the police in the same way and to the same degree as any other citizen.
As volunteers, monitors are not employees of the Commission and they receive no pay. They receive only travel expenses (in the form of a mileage allowance) and an emolument to cover the meals and breaks. Monitoring parades can involve long hours, often at weekends with very early starts and/or very late finishes. The contribution monitors make against this demanding backdrop is particularly appreciated by the Commission.