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.
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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.