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Community Restorative Justice in Northern Ireland – An Overview

Community restorative justice programmes developed in Northern Ireland as an alternative to punitive "self-policing" by the IRA and Loyalist groups. In this article, Brian Gormally, a practitioner working in Northern Ireland, provides an overview of the development of community restorative justice initiatives, their importance to the community, and the obstacles they are encountering.
In the late 1960s a violent political conflict developed in Northern Ireland, a small territory geographically part of the island of Ireland but politically a region of the United Kingdom. During its course the conflict claimed the lives of over 3,000 people on a territory little more than 100 kilometres across and amongst a population of 1.5 million. In 1994 ceasefires were declared by the main protagonists and, in 1998, 30 years after it began, a peace agreement was concluded and supported by all the people of Ireland, North and South in simultaneous referenda. Last year the IRA halted all military operations and decommissioned its large arsenal of weapons. It appears that the UVF, one of the main Loyalist paramilitary groups, is about to disband. However, elements of the Agreement remain to be implemented, sporadic violence continues, some armed groups have not given up their weapons and the state has not fully demilitarised its operations.

The conflict was fought out between the state (British Army, locally recruited soldiers, the police, courts and prisons), Republican armed groups, principally the IRA, and Loyalist armed groups. Republicans were based amongst the Catholic population and claimed to be fighting for a united Ireland. Loyalists were based amongst the Protestant population and claimed to be defending the Union with Britain. The local state forces were almost entirely Protestant, backed up by British regiments, and claimed to be defending not just the Union but also democracy against terrorism.

Northern Ireland was deeply divided before the conflict and many, especially Catholics, distrusted the state. The conflict, however, clearly had a disastrous impact on relations between sections of the population and the state, particularly the criminal justice system.

From the earliest days of the conflict, this situation led to attempts at “self-policing” with “people’s courts” set up in the “no-go” areas. This led to the IRA, and later to Loyalist armed groups, taking on a policing role. Though without doubt demanded by the community, this alternative justice system relied on the brutality of kneecappings and terrible beatings. This was, and is, directed mainly against those who are allegedly involved in anti-social crime in local communities. Many outside, and some inside, the working class communities decried this violence but many ordinary people supported this brutal version of retributive justice.

After the ceasefires, this punishment activity continued but it began to seem possible to create a peaceful alternative. Many concerned people felt it was useless and counter-productive simply to demand that a then un-reformed police force should deal with all crime. A solution would have to come from within the communities and be acceptable to them.

In 1996 a voluntary organisation commissioned research by two ex-prisoners with credibility in their own communities. At that time the initiative made no progress on the Republican side, but on the Loyalist side the report of extensive consultation with the community called for a peaceful form of community justice. On the Republican side, some individuals from the voluntary sector began a series of private seminars and discussions with Republican activists. They discussed the principles of justice and human rights and the practicalities of community justice. This led to the discussion document that was eventually published as the “Blue Book.” It stated that “this report arises out of our attempts to devise a viable non-violent system of community based justice to replace the existing systems of punishment beatings and shootings in Northern Ireland.”

An interesting aspect of these two processes is that intensive discussions with community activists produced ideas and models for community justice that were not only peaceful but also embraced restorative principles. It was around this time that the ideas of restorative justice were being introduced to Northern Ireland and were adopted by both Republicans and Loyalists as reflecting the desire for community-based justice. These ideas were, however, only introduced into the discussions at a late stage; the concepts of restorative justice had been developed indigenously by communities seeking for solutions to practical problems.

A year or so later – in 1998/99 – projects were established in both communities – Alternatives on the Loyalist side and Community Restorative Justice Ireland on the Republican side. They were both funded by the charitable trust now known as Atlantic Philanthropies.

Alternatives started in one area but has now expanded into several Loyalist areas in the East of Northern Ireland. Its main model is to work intensively with young people accused of anti-social crime including in the process of victim-offender mediation, reparation to the community and purposeful, learning activity. Projects also engage in mediation of neighbourhood disputes.

The Republican-based project, Community Restorative Justice Ireland, uses a more generalist model. Its projects, funded and voluntary, are in over a dozen locations in Northern Ireland with one project in Dublin. Volunteers engage with problems or disputes brought to them by members of the public or by other agencies. Where relevant, they organise mediation sessions where alleged perpetrators, direct victims and community representatives try to work out solutions. They have a high success rate and do a lot of intensive educational work in the communities.

The parallel developments of community-based restorative justice have been extraordinary by international standards. Instead of the normal model of painstakingly created projects facing community apathy and official disdain, we have seen the ideas of restorative justice sweeping through communities. The ideas of restorative justice have formed the core of what has become a real social movement.

For clear historical reasons, the communities in Northern Ireland have become well-organised at a neighbourhood level with a high level of structure and activity. Into this culture of willingness to organise and take collective responsibility for problems has come a set of ideas and practices that actually allow success in an area very close to people’s hearts – safety and justice. This is neither just a protest movement nor a limited area of practice – it is a severely practical but also emotionally inspiring way of making a difference in matters of central concern to the community.

These projects were set up in a particular time and place with particular concerns. Their priorities were to help reduce anti-social crime and to provide a peaceful alternative to punishment violence. To carry out these tasks, however, they adopted the principles of community-based restorative justice as the best set of ideas around that could give a sensible guide to the necessary practice. Perhaps the most important theme of restorative justice is the wholeness of society and therefore of particular communities. It rejects the concepts of insiders and outsiders and understands that both offenders and victims are part of the community. Everything that happens in a community is the concern of the community.

Restorative justice is also, plainly, about justice.  Its concept of justice is different from and critical of the retributive formal system – concentrating on righting wrongs and mending harm – but it is justice nonetheless. The point is that a community-based restorative justice scheme is coming from the community – the housing estates and neighbourhoods where its people live and work – armed with a legitimate and coherent concept of justice. This sense of justice does not want to replace the formal criminal justice system, though it might propose ideas to it. It has the right, however, to be recognised as a theory and practice of justice with equal value, if a different role and scope, to the formal system.

Another crucial aspect of this concept of justice is that it is voluntary. It is understood that a society-wide justice system, a formal system, needs to rely, in the end, on the threat or use of coercion. In total contrast, a community-based restorative justice project can only work if it is wholly voluntary – in the sense that any use or threat of force will destroy its legitimacy and invalidate its co-operative approach.

Unfortunately, these schemes have been met with hostility in some quarters from the very beginning. In spite of the fact that government was kept fully informed of the results of discussions and consultations, some elements purported to detect a conspiracy to take over the justice system. No state funding of projects has been forthcoming. More recently, some political interests have claimed that community restorative justice will be used as a way for paramilitaries, especially the IRA, to corrupt policing.

Certainly, these projects from the beginning included people who had been involved in violence. However, the direction of influence has been towards peace, not towards undermining civilised institutions. Community restorative justice has actually provided one way in which ex-combatants can engage in peaceful community activism in a hugely important area – the practice of justice. This daily practice not only provides a continuing example of the benefits of a peaceful way of achieving what they claimed to have taken up arms for, it also demonstrates the need for formal, society-wide structures of justice.

In fact, the community restorative justice projects are in the forefront of the demands for effective, accountable policing. They understand this as meaning policing in co-operation with the community. As Jim Auld, Director of CRJI, said: “A policing provision must be more than acceptable. Critically linked to acceptability is the fact that we want, and need, an effective policing structure. We cannot have one without the other. To be effective in any society the policing structure must not be only acceptable to the communities in which in operates. It must be an integral part of the life of those communities.”

There has been a major reform of the police service in Northern Ireland and a somewhat less radical reform of the rest of the criminal justice system. There is not yet a total political agreement on policing but, in principle, it is close. We are engaged in the creation of a new social contract between a changed and reformed criminal justice system and a community also prepared to change and embrace the legitimacy of the new arrangements.

The government has recently published a set of Guidelines for the operation of community restorative justice schemes – when they are dealing with crime – and how they might interact with the formal criminal justice system, including the police. A process of public consultation is now underway and political debate on the issue has, at times, become heated. The projects have yet to publish their formal responses, but it is likely there will be a general acceptance in principle.

This is not the place to analyse these Guidelines, but some main points are that the police should be informed about all crimes and that the new Public Prosecution Service would take all decisions about how cases are processed. With peace and a reformed justice system, no-one would object to the principles behind those points. There are, however, some practical problems. On the Republican side, there is still such political hostility to the police that community restorative justice projects would lose their local credibility if they worked directly with them. It will take political decisions and a careful process of transition to change that situation. More generally, the reason for existence of these projects is their organic link with the community. If even minor cases have to be subject to a lengthy and remote bureaucratic process before anything can be done, their added value becomes questionable.

All these points are negotiable with good will. Unfortunately, the funding from charitable sources is running out and government still refuses to allow any public agency to grant aid the projects. It would be tragic if resource starvation and party politics wrecked their potential. For the reality is, having done great work in difficult conditions over the past decade, community restorative justice projects are now poised to make perhaps their greatest contribution yet – as a new bridge between the state and society. If the processes are handled right, we could leap-frog the “normality” of a police force and justice system that polices a sullen and chronically frightened community to a leading model of community-state partnership in justice. That is the vision for which we are working.




Brian Gormally
April 2006

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