Using mobile phones to create a network of communication that can stop violence before it escalates

Interaction Belfast (formerly known as Springfield Inter-Community Development Project) created a mobile phone network to prevent outbreaks of violence between volatile neighborhoods in Belfast. Volunteers in both Catholic and Protestant communities are given mobile phones to communicate with their counterparts across the interface when potentially violent crowds gather or when rumors of violence start to spread.

An “interface” is an area where Catholic (Nationalist/Republican) and Protestant (Unionist/Loyalist) neighbor­hoods abut one another. Typically divided by physical walls, neighborhoods along the interfaces tend to be among the most economically deprived communities in Northern Ireland. Suspicion about what is happening on the other side of the wall can cause or escalate violent incidents.

Volunteers from both sides meet weekly and their phones are always on. During events that are likely to cause vio­lence, such as sporting events or Protestant parades through Catholic neighborhoods, the network plans ahead to monitor key areas. Volunteers recognize that they are able to intervene most effectively in cases of “recreational violence” — youth seeking excitement or responding to rumors — but are able to do little in cases of organized or paramilitary violence.

When volunteers see or hear of crowds gathering along the interface, or hear rumors of violence about to occur on the other side, they call their counterparts across the interface. Volunteers calm crowds on their own sides before the incidents become violent.

Since the program began, the phone network has both prevented violence and provided communities on both sides of the interface with more accurate information when violence does occur. The weekly meetings of volun­teers have also created a core group of people engaged in regular cross-community dialogue. As these relation­ships have matured, the network has also begun to address other common problems facing both communities, including long-term revitalization of the area.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

In the seemingly intractable conflict in Northern Ireland, finding common ground between politicized Catholic and Protestant factions has often proven nearly impossible. And yet there are people on both sides who want to prevent outbreaks of violence. This tactic involves identifying leaders in each community who want to prevent violence and arming them with needed information.

The widespread use of mobile telephone technology has made rapid responses to imminent and ongoing abuse more possible now than ever. In Northern Ireland the telephones made communication possible even when the two sides did not at first have a particularly strong relationship, but were committed to ending the violence.