Restorative Justice in Northern Ireland

Practice Development Advisor and Northern Ireland native David Orr attended the 8th International Conference of the European Forum for Restorative Justice (EFRJ) where he presented a paper along with Mary Munro (University of Strathclyde) and Jenny Johnstone (University of Newcastle/Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR)). The theme of the conference was Beyond Crime: Desistance, Social Justice and Peacemaking and the paper was entitled Restorative Justice in Scotland: at the crossroads? Here David reflects on his three days in Northern Ireland.

It is a funny old place, Northern Ireland. Just using the term “Northern Ireland” is to make a political statement when one might instead refer to the North of Ireland. The terminology traps become pretty tiresome pretty quickly. Derry or Londonderry? Long Kesh or The Maze? Gaol or Jail? How do you pronounce the letter “H”? To open one’s mouth is to self-designate as “one of those sorts” as opposed to “one of them other sorts”.

Religion. Culture. Tradition. Intransigence. Small mindedness. Bigotry. Those are words that spring to mind when I think of “home”. Equally though I think of it as the land of craic and banter, of searing black humour, of rich history and generous hospitality. Take my home town as an example. Portadown: infamous for the Drumcree Orange March which brought the country to a standstill in the summer months year after year with the lunacy reaching its peak in the mid to late nineties as well as being blown up twice in pretty quick succession. Portadown: home of the hysterical and much missed Portadown News, a satirical-take on everything ridiculous about the town and the country. It was either Churchill or Kevin Keegan who said “it’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. That just about sums up Northern Ireland/the North of Ireland. If ever there was a country that might benefit from the development of restorative practices and peace-making and perhaps even forgiveness, this is it. The conference was the first time I had gone “home” without a “home” to go to as such. My parents moved over to Scotland too about a year ago.  I suppose on that basis, I was feeling a little but more reflective than usual over the course of the conference, not quite maudlin but certainly in the mood to take stock.

The EFRJ was fortunate to attract numerous high profile keynote speakers, each of whom made stimulating and engaging contributions. David Ford, the Minister for Justice and Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), made a thoughtful opening speech. He hails from one of the few political parties that have always tried to attract (and continue to try to attract) voters from both sides of the sectarian divide. In many ways, as Leader of the Alliance Party, he is something of an endangered species. He spoke about restorative justice as “a very human response to the harm that is caused to victims” and was clearly passionate and informed about the subject matter, aware of the potential for restorative justice approaches in response to many forms of offending, including serious crime. Next up were Shadd Maruna (“Desistance from Crime and Restorative Justice: Unstrange Bedfellows”) and Joanna Shapland (“Desistance from Crime and the Potential Role of Restorative Justice”). Shadd Maruna expressed his view that desistance theory is “having its 15 minutes of fame” and that it might offer some useful insights to restorative justice practitioners. He highlighted the way in which desistance theory takes a “long view” about the process through which individuals move from offending to desistance. He also focused on the theme of shame and the way in which desistance theory interprets “shame management” as “a process of identity construction over time”. Finally, he emphasised the importance desistance theory places on structural factors and political economy. Joanna Shapland then sought to identify some of the common threads that link desistance theory and restorative practice, not least in their shared focus on the human and social capital.

Later in the day, I was invited to chair a workshop session in relation to two separate and fascinating papers which highlighted the diversity of cultures and nationalities in attendance at the conference. The first was Restorative Criminal Justice in Singapore: A Velvet Fist in an Iron Glove? by Kumaralingam Amirthalingam (Professor of Law at the University of Singapore) and the second wasPeacebuilding as an approach for handling conflicts between police and Roma minority in Hungary by Gabor Hera (Researcher at the Forsee Research Group Hungary). Another feature of the Conference was to incorporate a field trip to enable participants to learn more about the history and culture of Belfast and Northern Ireland and to ground their learning about restorative justice in its social and cultural context. As such, I was one of a group that visited the Crumlin Road Gaol, recently converted to a museum having served for many years as an institution in which both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries were detained on account of their involvement in acts of violence during “The Troubles”. Only a few weeks ago it was visited by the Queen (shortly before her trip to the Game of Thrones set!) She was shown around the premises by Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson (Democratic Unionist Party) and Deputy First Minister Martin Maginnis (Sinn Fein), both of whom were detained at the institution in the past. The highlight of this visit was a powerful production by Kabosh Theatre Company of their short play, “Those you pass on the street,” which explored some of the challenges of life in post-conflict Belfast.

One of the features of the visit to Crumlin Road which I found more challenging was the input from a former inmate Bobby Mathieson. He was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and part of a gang charged with ten separate sectarian murders and shootings. At age 20 he spent two years on remand awaiting trial before being sentenced to life in prison. He was released after serving 14. Initially affecting, it became apparent as his account developed that his path to desistance was essentially one that required the complete sacrifice of agency to a “Higher Power”. Evidently he had embraced a form of Evangelical Christianity that enabled him to understand his previous behaviour as “sinful”. In his own words, his mind was telling him that he was “a scumbag” and “a piece of dirt” until he was “saved”. This was very much an account of desistance Northern Ireland-style, discomfiting to say the least. It chimes in some ways with Brendan Marsh’s research examining identity change and the 12-step programme as experienced by a group of former-drug abusers and offenders with historical links to organised crime in Dublin who had become desisters.

During the three days I was in Belfast, I was staying in the University area, close to one of Belfast’s many “flashpoints” or “interface areas”, where nationalist and loyalist communities reside cheek by jowl. It was the first night of the World Cup and I was on my way to meet up with some friends when I walked past a betting shop I remembered from news reports in 1992 when I was not quite into my teens. I was relatively unscathed by “the Troubles” in comparison with those who experienced the loss of friends and family members but I do remember the names and details of various bombings, shootings and massacres – Enniskillen, Teebane, Greysteel, the Shankill and many more besides. Anyway, the Bookies in question was Sean Graham’s on the Lower Ormeau Road where five innocent Catholics were killed by two Ulster Freedom Fighter (UFF) gunmen. One of the victims was 15, only a few years older than me when he died. I could not help but link the memory of the shooting with the input I had heard from Bobbie Mathieson earlier in the day. For a moment, as I looked at the memorial that still stands on the wall outside Sean Graham’s, I wondered if he could have been one of the gunman before going back to my notes and working out that the dates did not match up and he would have been in custody. Nevertheless I remember the utter disgust and horror I felt at the time of the shootings. What an unnecessary waste of life it seemed. What hatred must have fuelled the actions of those who pulled the triggers? It is scars from these sorts of tragedies that many individuals and families in Northern Ireland continue to bear. Not surprisingly, individuals residing in particular communities often in areas of higher socio-economic deprivation bore the brunt of the casualties from the conflict, as both victims and perpetrators. It seems that the brutality of the conflict and the development of restorative justice in Northern Ireland are inextricably linked, that restorative justice practice grew out of the increasing recognition that “enough was enough” coupled with the dedication and commitment of those who believed in a form of justice that sought to address harms caused in a safe and constructive fashion.

Kieran McAvoy (Professor of Law at Queen’s University) provided a fascinating personal insight into the way in which the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was, from the time of the first ceasefire in 1994, increasingly drawn towards the concept of restorative justice. This stemmed in large part from the challenge of managing antisocial and offending behaviour in nationalist communities which had been dealt with up to that point by the administration of “punishment beatings” and “knee-cappings”. In addition to the violence through which the IRA sought to expel the British from Ireland, it was also responsible for community-based violence aimed at maintaining order given that the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland’s Police Force at the time, was simply not trusted or recognised in many Republican and Nationalist communities. On the one hand, agitated members of Republican communities would approach members of the IRA demanding that “something be done” to address the antisocial behaviour of a particular (often young) person, such as drug-dealing or joy-riding. On the other hand when the IRA’s crudely named “Civil Administration” arm exacted retribution in gruesomely violent fashion, many in the community and further afield recoiled in understandable horror. So it was that Senior Republicans approached several academics to ask for assistance and instruction in the means of managing the administration of justice in their communities in a manner that was less brutal and more focussed on repairing harm. It was from these early initiatives that Community Restorative Justice Ireland and Northern Ireland Alternatives grew, the two community-based organisations undertaking restorative justice work across Ireland, north and south.

Since 2003, 15,000 youth conference referrals have been received and processed by the Youth Justice Agency in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is now recognised as a country that has been pioneering in developing and embedding restorative practice and principles in its communities and institutions. From the embers of conflict it appears that something positive has happened as regards redesigning justice in a fashion that places victims and communities at the heart of decision-making and prioritises reparation of harm and restoration.

About the blogger

David Orr is a National Development Consultant with CYCJ’s practice team, seconded from Edinburgh Youth Offending Service (YOS). His specialisms include managing high risk offenders and restorative justice, particularly its application in the aftermath of serious harm. Read more about David.


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