Case Studies

The Great Ballot Box Caper

The Great Ballot Box Caper

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

Violence throughout Northern Ireland abated significantly with the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Agreement, in which Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists pledged to use peaceful means to seek compromise on Northern Ireland’s status. Despite the agreement, sharp divisions left the city of Londonderry, called "Derry" by Nationalists, susceptible to violence. Site of the 1972 Bloody Sunday events, Derry had a long history of sectarian strife, particularly during elections.

The trigger for violence on election days was always the same: The presence of police at polling places. The British-controlled police service was a focal point of ire in the Nationalist community; Derry’s Nationalists were particularly angry that police officers were stationed at polling places in their neighborhoods, but not in Unionist areas of the city. They had long resented the police because of a perceived campaign of harassment, including random car searches and raids on suspected paramilitary sympathizers. So the presence of the police at polling stations was seen as a heavy-handed move by the British to intimidate people from voting — and thereby weaken the Nationalists’ voting clout. For their part, British authorities claimed that police were needed to prevent Nationalist political parties from committing election fraud.

Previous election cycles in Derry followed a recurring story line: As poll closings neared, mobs of Nationalists, mostly young men, would gather outside six of Derry’s 32 polling places, located in schools in Nationalist neighborhoods. Armed with stones and gasoline bombs, the rioters would take up positions leading to the school entrances. When the polls closed, police reinforcements would arrive to remove ballot boxes from the polling places. The vehicles would maneuver into position near the buildings’ doors, and officers in full tactical gear would rush into the schools to collect the boxes and usher the electoral staff into the vehicles. The vehicles were attacked as they drove away. With only one route leading in and out of each polling place, the police were unable to disguise their arrival or alter their escape route.

Patricia Murphy, who was in charge of Derry’s electoral office, recalled that the 2004 elections were the most violent in recent memory: On election night, rioters threw roughly 50 gasoline bombs. The police chief of Derry at the time was Ricky Russell, a 24-year veteran of the police service who became chief a few months before the 2004 elections. Witnessing the violence, he knew that something had to be done to change that pattern. Although as commander he had final responsibility to determine the police role at polling places, he recognized that fixing the problem required a joint effort by a broad spectrum of electoral officials, political party representatives, and community activists.

Two of these activists, Tony O’Doherty and Charlie O’Donnell, lived near a "hot spot" polling place, Holy Child Primary School. O’Doherty was a veteran community activist, while O’Donnell was the former principal of the school. Since the early 1990s, the two had mobilized groups of concerned neighbors to help monitor mob activity. Mothers, teachers, and members of the clergy joined the two men as they patrolled polling places and tried to discourage violent behavior. O’Doherty often searched the neighborhood for weapons; he once discovered 30 gasoline bombs stored behind a wall near the school.

With another vote scheduled for May 2005, appeals for a solution to Election Day violence gained urgency. Diverse constituencies recognized that they confronted an intertwined problem. The British government was eager to show that conditions in Derry had improved as Northern Ireland marked the seven-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Electoral officials felt added pressure because of the severity of the unrest in 2004 and the resulting media coverage.

Major political parties also had compelling reasons to work toward a solution. Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the police service and strongly opposed police involvement in electoral matters. But the violence deterred people from voting and thus threatened to cut into Sinn Fein’s vote totals. Moreover, in accordance with the 1998 agreement, officials were keen to disassociate themselves from acts of violence.

As community activists, O’Doherty and O’Donnell both believed that the solution to the violence was home grown: "I kept pleading with the people in the elections office and the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland]: ‘Let us take care of the ballot boxes,’" recalled former school principal O’Donnell.

Previous police chiefs had balked at community leaders’ contentions that the police were the issue and should be removed from polling places. Police chief Russell, however, did not see on-site police involvement as a precondition for an election; while the police were responsible for the safety of the electoral staff and voters, the law did not require a police presence at polling stations.

In the autumn of 2004, Derry’s City Council, whose members included both Unionists and Nationalists, gathered to discuss Election Day violence. Murphy, head of Derry’s electoral office, attended the meeting, along with her boss Dennis Stanley, the chief electoral officer of the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland, the British government’s elections-administration arm. Community activists, political players, and some members of the clergy were also on hand, but no police were present. Because Sinn Fein refused to recognize the legitimacy of the police, the two sides never appeared together in public.

Stanley outlined a plan to relocate five of the six hot-spot polling places to less populated areas: "We were looking to find new places that would not attract the rioters," he explained. The idea received a cool reception from Nationalists, who worried about losing votes. A Sinn Fein representative, Barney O’Hagan, offered a counterproposal: "What I proposed on behalf of the party was that we could identify prominent community leaders … that could escort the ballot boxes out of the polling stations, and there wouldn’t be any need for a police presence." Stanley rejected O’Hagan’s proposal, and told the council that he would move ahead with his plan to relocate the polling places.

Weeks later, O’Hagan and a delegation of Sinn Fein members traveled to the Electoral Office’s headquarters in Belfast, where they met with Stanley and reiterated their proposal. But Stanley remained firm in his plan to relocate the polling places, concerned about the opportunities for ballot tampering. "Sinn Fein were saying that they would police the election, and that was totally unacceptable in any democracy," recalled Stanley.

O’Hagan lamented the apparent stalemate: "There was no compromise. [Stanley’s] whole argument was … the police have a right to be there, they’re legitimate. He refused to accept the idea that you could entrust Nationalist communities to host an election without an armed police guard."

After failing to win his point at the Belfast meeting, O’Hagan considered other paths. He realized that he might be able to sidestep Stanley if police chief Russell agreed to the plan, since Russell had the final say on the extent of police involvement. If Stanley went ahead with his plan to relocate polling places, Russell could choose not to station forces at the new sites. O’Hagan knew from speaking with O’Donnell and O’Doherty that senior police officials confided to the community activists that officers did not want to be involved in elections.

Because he was a member of Sinn Fein, O’Hagan had to approach police chief Russell through intermediaries, using O’Doherty and other community leaders to make his case. O’Hagan’s message was simple: "We were confident that we could rally the community to support the proposal, and that we could actually give an assurance … that the safety of everyone concerned would be guaranteed."

O’Doherty talked with fellow community leaders in other hot-spot polling places, and together they approached Russell. "[W]hat the community leaders conveyed to us was that there was a lot that the community could do to reduce the violence," Russell said. He favored the bold initiative to solve a problem that had defied solution by the usual methods.

Following this meeting, Russell met privately with chief electoral officer Stanley to discuss removing the police from the polling places. Stanley opposed the idea on a number of grounds; his primary concern was that the elections might be declared invalid if the ballot boxes were tampered with or damaged during removal.

A few days later, however, the Electoral Office announced that the polling places would remain where they were, and that the police would no longer be present. Community leaders had assured Stanley that they would take steps to prevent rioting; the police, in turn, had indicated they would work with the Electoral Office to minimize the chance of disruption — including maintaining their distance from the polling places.

In the final weeks before the election, police chief Russell and Murphy, head of Derry’s electoral office, met with Alex Penney, the police operations and planning inspector, who had spent 23 years with the police, 17 of which in Derry. The trio worked out new security arrangements for the hot spots. Phones were installed in each school with a direct line to the central police station. A local courier company, using unmarked vans, would pick up the ballot boxes and transport them to a secure holding facility. Van drivers would have radios to communicate with the police station. Police units would be on stand-by near each of the polling stations, and a police helicopter would patrol the polling stations and send back live video to the command center, which would track the vans and detect gathering crowds. 

In the weeks preceding the election, community activists O’Doherty and O’Donnell encouraged community members to help patrol the streets on Election Day and maintain calm outside the polling places. Sinn Fein and the Nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party drew up lists of individuals who would help keep watch on the streets outside the polling places. 

Security preparations for Election Day 2005 began at 4:00 in the morning. Police swept all 32 polling places in Derry for weapons and bombs, and established vehicle checkpoints on the roads leading to the polling places. These procedures had been routine for decades, and the early start time minimized the risk of any backlash. The polling places opened at 7:00 AM. Police service members Russell and Penney were in the command center at the police station, where a screen beamed live images from the helicopter. Penney periodically called each polling place to ensure there were no disturbances. Both men were in frequent contact with Murphy, who spent much of the day driving among the polling places. Murphy also stayed in close contact by mobile phone with O’Doherty and the other community leaders.

By the evening, no polling station had reported a disturbance. Officers from the police’s tactical unit took up positions about five minutes’ driving distance from each of the hot spots. When the polls closed at 10:00 p.m., about 200 youths gathered outside Holy Child Primary School, and smaller crowds assembled at other hot spots. O’Doherty told the crowd at the school that the police would not show up. "They didn’t believe it, and they hung about for an hour and a half, two hours," he recalled. "But eventually it got through to them."

One at a time, the vans traveled to each of the schools and retrieved the ballot boxes without incident. The helicopter tracked the vans to the holding center. O’Donnell, who only a year earlier had spent the day in the streets discouraging rioting, now assisted the electoral staff in moving the ballot boxes to the courier van. "As we were carrying the ballot boxes out, somebody started to clap and then everybody was applauding. It was just an extraordinary sensation."

Stakeholders hailed Election Day in 2005 as a turning point. By 2010, there had not been a single incident of rioting at polling places since the removal of the police. After successful elections in 2005 and 2007, electoral officials made two procedural changes for handling ballot transportation. First, ballot boxes could proceed directly to the counting center without first being diverted to a holding center. Second, instead of using a transport company, the senior presiding officers at most of the now-former hot-spot polling places drove the ballot boxes in their personal vehicles to the counting centers. (The helicopter patrol, however, remained in place.)

The strategy used in Derry may not necessarily be applicable to other cases; the success of the community-based initiative stemmed in large part from the political and ethnic unity of the Nationalist communities in specific areas of the city. Community activists, party representatives, and potential rioters all viewed the British as unwelcome occupiers of Northern Ireland. The strategies employed to police the elections — mobilizing manpower in the form of respected community figures, and relying on persuasion by activists, mothers, and clergy — worked because potential rioters could relate to the enforcers, and vice versa.

Police chief Russell removed his officers from hot-spot polling places because he was confident the idea would work in this particular situation. Had the community comprised both Unionists and Nationalists, any strategy that relied on shared enforcement may have faced significant problems. Former school principal O’Donnell credited the success of the effort largely to Russell’s willingness to risk his own reputation, and to the organizational skills of O’Doherty and other community activists.

The success of the 2005 elections in Derry illustrates the power of a shared objective. The entities involved — the police service, Nationalist party leaders and community organizers, and electoral officers — were not traditional allies. However, these diverse groups recognized that peaceful elections were in their best interests. As a result, each group assumed risk in an effort to solve the problem of violence. Police chief Russell risked his job by trusting in the Nationalist communities to self-police the elections; Nationalist leaders risked their reputations both inside and outside of their communities by assuring crowd control; and electoral officials risked the integrity of their elections, should fraud be committed. These risks paid off thanks to the interwoven efforts of the stakeholders. As O’Donnell noted with satisfaction, "There were lots of players, but when spiders unite, they can tie up a tiger."