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Founded in 1998, CRJI aspires to build a tolerant, responsive and inclusive community by providing restorative justice services to local areas. 

Humanising Conflict: Striving Towards a Restorative Society

“Do you know that dreaded walk home, where you know there’s an issue that has to be dealt with?” asks Harry Maguire, Director of Community Restorative Justice Ireland (CRJI). “The dread of it. Yet, when you get into the house and it’s dealt with - the lightness that comes with it. The liberation that comes with it.”

Highlighting the benefits of dialogue in such a way helps to demystify much of the work carried out by Maguire and the team at CRJI. Indeed, dialogue and conflict resolution represent essential tools that we all use in our everyday lives; in our houses, within our families and in whatever set of relationships we find ourselves in. “Restorative Justice is about two people or more, unable to resolve whatever their dispute is. They bring in a third party and they have a very difficult conversation.”

Rooted in discussions around the Peace Process, the practice of restorative justice was explored by a number of individuals who were getting to grips with what was going on in a new, transitional space on the ground; described as one emerging from conflict where young people were still being harmed by armed groups. “Whilst the combatants’ arms were falling silent, young people were still being shot and injured”, recalls Maguire.

Restorative justice: a world view

Basing restorative justice within an international and historical context played a central role in its practice in the North. Insights from professionals in the US and beyond described a framework pioneered by ancient aboriginal communities throughout the Americas, many of which had faced conflict and devastation of their own. For those involved with CRJI, highlighting those similarities and drawing connections towards local life brought immediate appeal.

Obtaining an international perspective also helped to allay much of the controversy surrounding the involvement of ex-prisoners. Maguire reflects on a dynamic in the North which sees ex-prisoners receiving a unique level of access to their communities: “If you’re going to make change on the ground, involve the stakeholders,” he explains. “If you can’t involve the people who were responsible for creating that informal system and who are actually trying to change it and redirect its energies, who else would you involve?”

Key to addressing these suspicions was the application of an international recognised and approved framework, supported by accepted standards in principles and practice. Adopting those standards whilst looking towards reparation over retribution gave weight to the project in an environment where dialogue would be essential in resolving conflict at both a political and community level. This fresh outlook would see the overlapping of many common values; from transparency, responsibility and accountability to support for the victim, the offender and the community as a whole.

Addressing the legacy of an informal system

The work of CRJI addresses the legacy of an informal system borne out of an abandonment of policing & justice in republican communities from 1969 onwards. “If the politics of the peace process was to arrive at the table with negotiations and a deal, what would that mean in terms of policing and justice?” asks Maguire, recalling early discussions between himself and fellow prisoners grappling with how attitudes could be changed around dealing with antisocial and often criminal elements within the community.

Over two decades later, work in changing these attitudes continues. Maguire addresses a major misconception surrounding the framework which sees it as a ‘soft touch’ on criminality:

“When someone is taken away and shot in these communities, their behaviour isn’t challenged. They’ve been ‘punished’ for what they’ve been found ‘guilty’ of, and the victim has little say in that. On the other hand, the formal system sees someone arrested and imprisoned, where their behaviour again goes unchallenged. In fact, the formal system is weighted towards the offender ‘trying to get out of it’ and suing for a last-minute deal, often resulting in a situation where they see their victim as the reason for their punishment.

“The process of restorative justice beckons people to the table and allows all stakeholders to explain their actions. It lets the victim hear and understand what the motivations were. For the offender, this may be the first time they’ve sat in the company of a victim to understand their concerns, and that can be a very challenging confrontation. That’s where you begin to enter the potential for change.”

For Maguire, that potential for change is unlimited. “When you do it in a way that involves a framework and a process, you come out with better results. Beyond that, you come out with strengthened beliefs, trust and relationships between people - because, if we’re nothing else, we’re a community of people. If we see the world in a not-too-dissimilar way, and we’re prepared to get around a table and be honest about our own actions, we’re moving into a different space. We’ve done this in thousands of cases.

“Let’s look at the prize and focus on creating a better society.”

Towards a ‘humanisation’ of conflict

Like Maguire, Debbie Watters sees restorative justice as a non-adversarial, non-violent means of humanising conflict. As a founding member and Director of Northern Ireland Alternatives, she frames the process within a centuries-old context, citing its beginnings within aboriginal communities such as Native American and Maori tribes. These historical practices succeeded by asking those key questions: who has been hurt? Who are the victims? How can we make things as right as possible?

In contemporary society, Watters notes that restorative justice has been pushed to the fore by non-violent, faith-based organisations such as the Quakers and the Mennonites. “When I moved to the States back in 1992, I worked closely with these organisations in the field of restorative justice. I very quickly understood that this would have resonance in our culture in Northern Ireland, as we ourselves were a community in transition. What better set of techniques to use than this human approach that would bring people to the table?”

Moving back to Northern Ireland from the USA in 1996, Watters went on to continue her work in the loyalist community of the Shankill. The organisation has evolved rapidly towards the present day; with seven offices, a staff team of 25 and a team of around 300 trained volunteers working in disadvantaged, often post-conflict communities. Similarly to CRJI, Watters situates the growth of Northern Ireland Alternatives within the backdrop of a fledgling Peace Process and a vacuum in policing & justice:

“Whilst paramilitaries were in ceasefire, communities were still actively involved in summary justice or paramilitary-style attacks. Around 1996, some communities began to question the merits of this approach and began to look for a non-violent way forward. I had just returned from working in this field in south Chicago and brought this framework with me as a way to intervene non violently in punishment style attacks, particularly with young people under threat and involved in antisocial behavior.”

Initially, Northern Ireland Alternatives found most of its work within the justice sector. This involved working to restore relationships between the community and the police, as well as working within custodial environments to help offenders reflect on the harm caused by their actions. The success of the framework led to a quick realisation of its potential within other sectors; including housing, health and education. “We expanded beyond justice, and this is where the term ‘restorative practice’ comes from,” explains Watters.

The expansion of restorative practice beyond the justice sector is a primary objective of the STARS (Striving Towards a Restorative Society) Project, funded by the Executive Office under the Tackling Paramilitarism Programme. For Northern Ireland Alternatives, this means giving teachers the tools to think about new ways to work in the classroom; assisting social workers in finding new ways to work with families and helping community workers bring on a new element to their everyday work.

Watters highlights the housing sector as an area of focus for the expansion of restorative practice: “Mediation can be used to resolve disputes between tenants, rather than putting tenants out. Using the framework, we can ask how we can support you in your vulnerability, and how we can support you so that you can retain your tenancy. It allows people to look at things through a different lens, and that includes seeing their responsibility through that lens.”

Empowering people, driving change

In practice, restorative work manifests differently depending on the sector it's being used in. However, common and critical elements include involving the victim and allowing them to talk about how they have been hurt, as well as involving the offender and understanding the challenges they face. “That process can take about ten months, and that will at some stage move to mediation where the young person and the victim sit together in a facilitated process. A lot of people say it's a ‘soft option’. To that, I would say that it isn’t easy to face your victim. In the restorative world it's very difficult to do that. It’s about emotional and psychological change - that’s how we get real change.”

For Watters and the team at Northern Ireland Alternatives, the benefits of restorative practices are too great to ignore. Individuals passing working within the framework hold a criminal recidivism rate of 10 percent: a figure held in stark contrast to the formal justice system which sees 80 percent of individuals reoffending within 12 months. Further contrasting are the costs involved, with the cost of a case within the framework costing roughly £2,000, compared to a year within the formal justice system which can cost up to £70,000. “If you don't buy into it from a philosophical point of view, buy into it from an economic point of view. All government departments need to be looking at this as a way forward and a way of doing core business,” argues Watters.

“This is about empowering the most vulnerable and telling them that they’re part of their community and have a stake in it. Rather than just excluding them, we want to give them the tools to lift differently and to support them in the long term.”

Restoration over retribution

The panel is completed by Kieran McEvoy, Professor of Law and Transitional Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. McEvoy’s involvement with restorative justice in the North came at a time when he and others were actively persuading the IRA to abandon punishment-style attacks in favour of community-based restorative justice. “That was over twenty years ago and I’ve been on the board of CRJI ever since,” he shares.

For the Professor, the key focus of restorative justice practice is on repairing relationships rather than punishing offenders; finding non-violent, human rights compliant solutions to resolving conflict. He notes that whilst many would assume the state to play a role by default, he prefers to see them as taking a more negotiated approach. “As long as you’re resolving problems in a community in a lawful and human rights compliant fashion, the state shouldn’t automatically assume that it has a seat at the table.”

Discussing the benefits of restorative justice in contemporary society, McEvoy points to modern day Australia and New Zealand, which both see a significant overrepresentation of aboriginal communities in the justice system. These figures shine a light on a disconnect between aboriginal communities and the justice system. “With this in mind, justice authorities and communities began to question how they could incorporate aboriginal tradition into the modern framework,” he explains.

Beyond examples within the justice system, he underlines the importance of restorative practice in international reconciliation, citing the fallout of the Rwandan genocide as well as the work of truth & reconciliation commissions in South Africa. For McEvoy, truth & reconciliation are themselves restorative values which move away from a focus on punishment of the offender. Indeed, the value of the framework has seen it being applied in situations ranging from minor infractions and disputes to some of the most heinous crimes imaginable:

“I come from a human rights activist background, previously working for a prisoners' charity called NIACRO. I'd been to South Africa and saw community restorative justice being used there as part of a transition challenging the culture of violence, where you’d have incidents like ‘necklacing’ used on those who may have informed against liberation forces. I’d seen restorative efforts to try and challenge that in an environment where state police had little legitimacy.

“Following the Irish ceasefires, we saw a cessation of military operations - but not policing operations - so violence did continue. For many, this suggested that loyalists and republicans were not serious about stopping the use of violence. There was an expectation from the community and a sense of responsibility from republicans that this was ‘part of their job’ - not only to protect their communities from outside threats, but also crime and antisocial behaviour from within. We created a space to discuss these issues with loyalists and republicans, and the framing of that conversation was ultimately around restorative justice.

“This framework allowed these communities to resolve disputes whilst also building relationships with the state, including the police, but done at the pace of the community themselves. You couldn't impose that relationship. It had to evolve over a course of a number of years. So, it challenged cultures of violence whilst building relationships on the ground.”

McEvoy questions a major misconception around community based restorative justice which suggests that it allows the continued paramilitary control and domination over communities - a challenge regularly put to both CRJI and Northern Ireland Alternatives given their roots in dialogue with armed groups. “For this reason, we had to work even harder to demonstrate our bona fides. That meant developing the highest standards of practice anywhere in the world, and that was because we had to. This means that we have two really excellent projects with some excellent, world-leading standards.

“They have won credibility and respect for the service they have delivered because they have worked to the highest standards,” he concludes.

Striving Towards a Restorative Society: A Special Feature for Féile an Phobail Community Arts Festival

This piece summarises a special production released as part of Féile an Phobail Community Arts Festival. To learn more about the STARS Project and the benefits of restorative practice, watch the full video here.


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