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Restorative justice: the theory & the practice

Damian O'Loan
3 August 2008

In a comment on Damian O'Loan's lament about ongoing sectarianism in Northern Ireland, Anthony Barnett asked why restorative justice of all things is deepening the divide when it is supposed to do the opposite. Damian's answer vividly illuminates what is going on. 

Damian O'Loan (Paris): Restorative justice involves community representatives mediating in low-level disputes, reducing criminalisation while better serving victims' interests. It has been effective internationally, most particularly regarding youth justice. What's specific to Northern Ireland, where it was this week further institutionalised, is it lies in the hands of groups rising from the embers of paramilitarism. 

The practice is, in theory, voluntary on the parts of victim and perpetrator. Refusing a man like Harry Maguire, convicted for murder and responsible for training at Community Restorative Justice Ireland , may be difficult to perceive as voluntary. The loyalist counterpart, NI Alternatives, is directed by Tom Winston, himself “given a life sentence for murder.” They work in the communities most affected and intimidated by paramilitaries historically and today. For these reasons the victim-mediator-perpetrator equilibrium is irretrievably distorted.

What, then, of Minister Goggins' assurance that only “the sort of low level crime that causes tensions” is involved? Sinn Féin's Education Minister said, more ambitiously, in 2004 “Sinn Fein plans to set up similar initiatives throughout South Down in order to offer a viable alternative to the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland).” This view of an alternative justice system, involving itself in domestic violence cases or worse, is now denied - but the oversight body can only examine records the schemes permit, it only interviews people contacted through the schemes.

Is there still a paramilitary threat? A close friend of Robert McCartney “says a prominent member of the controversial Community Restorative Justice (CRJ) scheme, ex-IRA prisoner, Harry Maguire, witnessed the assault on her husband [with Mr McCartney during his murder] but hasn't made a statement to police.” The only trial related to McCartney's murder recently failed to find a guilty verdict, due to low-quality evidence. The message is still not clear that, in all cases, republicans will fully integrate with the justice system – do the witnesses feel under threat or unwilling to integrate? Greater vigilance than that required under the current leaky protocol is essential, notwithstanding the limitations of protocol enforcement.

The Times described restorative justice as “part of the latest batch of goodies to keep the peace process going“, but recent crisis meetings between Downing St and Gerry Adams may not be relevant to Wednesday's funding announcement. Meanwhile, the Community Policing budget suffers.

In light of tension between Sinn Féin and dissident republicans, it is essential that any associated group, also an arm of the British justice system, is subject to rigorous scrutiny in its response. Closer oversight is urgently required if the system is to work. We could still adopt a better restorative justice model, though the will seems lacking.

Regardless of the effect, if short-term savings are made on policing sensitive areas, we can expect the practice to be replicated across the UK. There must be one justice system before which all are held equally accountable.

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