The Politicisation of Community Restorative Justice in Northern Ireland
Moving away from violent conflict, where severe punitiveness characterised people’s response to norm transgression, towards a strong, peaceful, inclusive and democratic community requires an enormous mind shift for many people. Practitioners of community-based restorative justice in Northern Ireland refer to this as an ‘education process’. The development and affirmation of new social norms can be facilitated through participatory practices such as community-based restorative justice. As such, these can be an important feature in a transitional society, particularly considering that many of these projects are located in communities which have a strained, or even non-existent relationship with the police.
There are two groups of community-based restorative justice initiatives in Northern Ireland: there is Community Restorative Justice Ireland (CRJI) which operates in 14 Republican communities across the north, and Northern Ireland Alternatives (NIA) which has offices in four Loyalist areas in and around Belfast. Both projects were initiated by political ex-prisoners, who still play a valuable role, together with other committed members from the local community who assist in the day-to-day operation of these projects. Both CRJI and NIA use restorative justice principles for their practice, and even though the focus of their work differs somewhat, both have in common that they were set up as a non-violent alternative to the practices of punishment violence as practiced by the different paramilitary groups in their respective communities.
Today, the majority of CRJI’s case-load is concerned with neighbour disputes and youth related issues such as drinking on street corners and playing football in the street. However, neighbour disputes in these areas have a tendency to escalate and are often based on generations of grievances, which means the disputes often become very violent. CRJI are also introducing restorative justice into some of the local schools, and working with reintegration of both young people coming out of prison and of people who have previously been excluded from the community by paramilitaries.
NIA works by a slightly different model, focusing mainly on intensive youth work, attempting to divert young people from a life of crime, involvement in paramilitary groups, and punishment by those groups. They also have an active victims' component, which includes support, a listening ear, victim-offender mediation etc. The impact of such a service should not be underestimated in a community where victims of crime were not adverse to using paramilitaries for the dispensing of ‘justice’2.
The levels of crime and anti-social behaviour in these communities are high, and on the increase. The transition (the period after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998) has resulted in people losing their sense of being part of a larger community, of a common purpose and of being responsible to each other. Community-based restorative justice has a potentially important role to play here, in terms of bridging gaps between community and state, empowering communities and individuals, and increasing tolerance and respect in a fragmented and fast-changing environment. Moreover, community-based restorative justice projects in Northern Ireland do not just influence the ‘ordinary’ community in the above-mentioned ways. They also have an influence on paramilitary groups, both mainstream and dissident, and so-called vigilante groups, challenging the leadership in particular, to think differently about conflict resolution.
The politicisation of community restorative justice.
The current debate surrounding community restorative justice in Northern Ireland has been mainly focused on the projects in Republican communities, and whether they intend to work with the PSNI (Police Service Northern Ireland), and if so, what form such cooperation would take. Politicians on both sides of the divide have voiced much concern in relation to this. However, significantly less attention has been paid to NIA, presumably because they have police sitting on their management committee and they are actively seeking to develop working partnerships with relevant statutory agencies.
Both CRJI and NIA are currently seeking funding from the government to be able to continue their work, which has spurred a debate, spearheaded by some of the major political parties, characterised by verbal mud-throwing on a playing field where community restorative justice is being used as a political football. The formulation and publication of the draft protocols which aim to regulate the relationship between community restorative justice projects in both Loyalist and Republican communities and the state, have attracted much attention from political parties of all persuasions. I is understood that government funding would provide CRJI and Alternatives with official legitimacy, a legitimacy which many people feel is underserved or, as expressed by some political parties, outright dangerous.
The main reason for this unease is that community restorative justice in Northern Ireland, especially on the Republican side, is perceived as being closely associated with parts of the wider Republican Movement, in particular the Provisional IRA and their main political party, Sinn Fein.
This has resulted in an intense politicisation of restorative justice which is not necessarily a positive development. A working partnership between community restorative justice on both sides of the divide and statutory agencies is important for the future practice of these projects. However, if such a partnership is forged at the expense of community ownership, then we need to think very carefully about the next step.
Partnerships based on communal objectives, formation of community support, and the enhancement of community resources, are all vital in the development of ‘good practice’ regarding cooperation between state and community, made more urgent due to the transition which Northern Ireland is currently undergoing.
Much of the important work done by NIA and its Republican counterpart CRJI - work which has received much attention and acclaim amongst the international restorative justice community of academics and practitioners – can potentially be undermined and their community ethos diluted, due to the politicisation of restorative justice here. And if that happens, we run the risk of losing an opportunity for positive and genuine change in the way in which justice is administered and delivered in Northern Ireland.
1 Chief Inspector, PSNI North Belfast.
2 Paramilitary ‘justice’ in this instance refers to practices utilised by both Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groupings which involved the beating (with baseball bats, clubs, sticks) and shootings (in arms, knees, feet, or a combination), as ‘punishment’ for involvement in antisocial behaviour, the selling of drugs, or collaboration with state forces for example. Such practices continued unabated after the signing of the Peace Agreement, but have decreased substantially in the last 2 years, much thanks to the work by community restorative justice programmes.