By Ray O’Hanlon
A record number of U.S. and Canadian observers, possibly more than 100, will be arriving in Northern Ireland over the next few days to monitor the expected confrontation at Drumcree following the decision to bar Orange Order marchers from the Garvaghy Road on July 4.
Roughly 50 North American observers were present in Drumcree last year and this year’s total will reflect continued concerns over policing as it applies to both sides of the divide, according to a source familiar involved in the organizing of this year’s observer group.
The observers, who will be easily recognizable in special-issue blue jackets, will be in addition to other Americans, including a delegation from the New York-based National Committee on American Foreign Policy.
The National Committee group will be headed by Mutual of America Chairman Bill Flynn and the company’s president and CEO, Tom Moran. The group is expected to stay in a house on the Garvaghy Road for several days and will be, according to a source, "well looked after by a Garvaghy road granny."
The New York-based National Committee has hosted a number of conferences in the city in recent years that have included representatives of all primary political shades in Northern Ireland.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Flynn, a member of the American delegation that played a central role in securing Gerry Adams his first U.S. visa, said that he expected to be in the Drumcree area for several days.
"The National Committee’s relations with both sides have been helpful in the past and may well be again," Flynn told the Echo.
A number of members of Congress, meanwhile, are delaying a planned visit to Northern Ireland until the week after the expected Drumcree confrontation.
The later arrival date is because the congressmen are expected to attend Fourth of July celebrations in their congressional districts.
However, several congressional aides are expected in Drumcree over the July 4 weekend. They will be joining observers from a variety of groups, including the New York-based Irish Parades Emergency Committee, which is expected to provide about 50 observers, or roughly half the total.
Other groups who will be represented include the Lawyers Alliance, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Boston-based Peace Watch and the Irish American Unity Conference.
In addition, U.S. labor officials are expected, as is Pat Doherty of the New York City Comptrollers Office.
Throughout their stay, the observers, though not working in unison, will be keeping in touch with each other using cell phones and walkie-talkies. In all, observers from 14 states, Washington, D.C, and parts of Canada will gather in Drumcree this weekend.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement that it would be viewing the upcoming marching season in Northern Ireland as a "test" summer for the RUC.
"Our goal is to observe the conduct of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to ensure that officers conform with international human rights standards," the group said in a statement.
Meanwhile, members of Congress due to arrive in Ireland in the days following Drumcree weekend include Reps. Ben Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and James Walsh, chairman of the Friends of Ireland group. Both will be leading a delegation formed under the auspices of the Ireland-U.S. interparliamentary exchange program.
The delegation will visit both Dublin and Belfast. Sources have indicated that Gilman, Walsh and the other members of the delegation will not be visiting Drumcree/Portadown but that they will likely confer with Garvaghy Road residents leaders in Belfast.
Some reports have pointed to fears that Gilman’s security could not be guaranteed if he traveled to Portadown. Gilman’s committee held hearings into the RUC earlier this year during which the force came in for severe criticism from witnesses.
However, sources have insisted that the congressional delegation will be on a tight schedule and that Portadown was never listed on the itinerary.