Inside restorative justice

Introduced as an alternative to paramilitary punishments, restorative justice schemes are often the first port-of-call for working class communities that still remain wary of the PSNI. Meadhbh Monahan reports.

“There is an appetite to bring paramilitarism back,” warns Debbie Watters. She is the project manager for the Greater Shankill branch of Northern Ireland Alternatives, one of five community-based restorative justice schemes operating in loyalist areas in Belfast and Bangor. Watters tells agendaNi: “The view is that when the boys were sorting it out, a lid was kept on [crime] and young people had fear.”

Many working-class communities still mistrust the PSNI because it has, according to her, failed to reduce levels of crime. “Young people have no fear [of police or paramilitaries] anymore. There’s a gang culture called FAP (f*** all paramilitaries) growing in Belfast that says: ‘we’ll show you we can do whatever we want and we don’t fear you.’”

This “can’t be allowed to happen”, Watters contends. She adds that the role of community-based restorative justice schemes is becoming more important in keeping communities safe.

Her counterpart on the Falls is Jim McCarthy, the Belfast co-ordinator of Community Restorative Justice Ireland (CRJI). He adds: “There is still a mistrust of the police. Some cops would be just as reluctant; sure you can’t blame them.”

CRJI operates in 11 republican areas of Belfast and Derry. McCarthy has found that republican communities still want “advice and support” in dealing with the criminal justice system. His experience has taught him that “no matter how many liaison officers [the PSNI] have, [locals] want to speak to someone in the community first.”

He reveals: “It’s nearly a weight lifted off their shoulders when you say: ‘I think you should go to the police with that.’”

There are a total of 16 community-based restorative justice schemes operating in Northern Ireland. They receive fundingfrom the Department for Social Development’s neighbourhood renewal scheme (£1,179,000 since 2008), the Department of Justice (£300,000 since 2007 matched by Atlantic Philanthropies) and the Housing Executive. Northern Ireland Alternatives’ five schemes also receive funding from the International Fund for Ireland.

As former prisoners are involved, these schemes have been controversial. Indeed, McCarthy claims that the current Social Development Minister Alex Attwood “is one of our strongest opponents”. The Minister responded that when he was invited by McCarthy to join CRJI, he raised “critical issues” but did not receive a reply.

“I have properly argued that strict rules and oversight is required of community restorative justice. That should continue,” Attwood told agendaNi.

“The risks of wrong and abuse must not happen again. Restorative justice as a concept is very important going forward, but its community practice must be closely monitored.”

He concluded: “I am not an ‘opponent’ but a considered advocate of restorative justice done properly.”

While Alternatives had the police and statutory agencies on its steering group, CRJI only began to work directly with the police in 2008, after Sinn Fé␣in accepted civic policing in 2007. Both schemes had to sign a strict protocol in 2007, stating that they would report all criminal offences via the police to the PPS, which will then refer low level offences back to schemes.


Watters explains that when life sentence prisoners came out of prison under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, they started asking: “If we are no longer fighting our enemy and using violence, why are we using summary justice processes [paramilitary attacks] within our own community?”

When talked to in their “cool, calm, collected space,” paramilitaries reported that they didn’t want to carry out attacks but “felt pressurised by the community”, Watters says. At the beginning, Alternatives’ vision was to “heal relations at a local level between victims and offenders but [also] at a vertical level between community, police and the statutory agencies.”

The first referrals to Alternatives were from paramilitaries and dealt with young people involved in anti-social behaviour. “It had to be that way at the beginning because we were there as an alternative,” Watters states.

In one of Alternatives’ programmes, a young person signs a personal contract which commits them to modules such as restorative practices, victim awareness and cognitive skills. This can include a face-to-face meeting with the victim if both parties agree.

As the years went on, the number of referrals from the community and statutory agencies increased as communities “cut paramilitaries out of the equation”, Watters reports. “We basically said to paramilitaries that ‘Once you send a person to us; that’s it. We can’t report back to you, we can’t let you know how they are doing and we definitely won’t let you know if they don’t engage’.”

Now, Alternatives is seen as “a community resource”. People approach them with “absolutely any issue”. Watters claims: “The perception that we were an arm of a paramilitary organisation doesn’t exist anymore.”


In the early 1990s, McCarthy and other Belfast republicans approached the republican paramilitaries asking them to “make a space” for the community workers to solve disputes.

“Not only did the people in our area not ring the police, they had no dealings with the state what so ever. They were always very wary of the Government,” McCarthy reflects.

CRJI initially operated informally, getting victims and offenders of all ages together to work out their differences. “It was probably restorative justice but we didn’t have a name for it,” he recalls. Statutory agencies also worked with that scheme “under the radar”.

Following research by academics from Queen’s University into punishment beatings and the operation of the informal criminal justice system in greater Belfast, restorative justice training was provided to Alternatives and CRJI. The latter opened its first office in 1998.

McCarthy recalls: “The way we had envisaged it was dealing with low-level anti-social behaviour and crime but as soon as the door opened we were swamped with everything [from murder to car parking disputes].”

In 2004 CRJI was coming under increased pressure from the Government to sign a protocol. Despite CRJI members believing that the police needed to be involved, he claims that “the political climate didn’t exist in the community” therefore the group refused to formalise its relationship with the state.

“We thought [working with the police] would be our death call but at the same time we knew well before Sinn Fé␣in held their special ard fheis on policing that they would accept it so we were going into community halls, getting people ready and creating the circumstances for police involvement,” he explains.

A Criminal Justice Inspectorate report into CRJI’s latest Newry and South Armagh office in October 2009 says that “the relationship between police and the scheme is one that is developing and which holds promise for the future.”

It adds that the South Armagh area “still presents major security considerations for local police [with] paramilitary and organised criminal influences in the area inhibiting the development of normal relationships.”


The schemes “reluctantly” signed the protocol in 2007. Although Alternatives and CRJI have a good working relationship now, tensions arose when Alternatives had to sign the protocol despite their collaboration with the police from the beginning.

“If CRJI had never been around, there wouldn’t have been a protocol,” Watters states. “It was a game we had to play.” She concedes that “an awful lot has changed.” But initially, “the system ran very scared from us.”

Both Watters and McCarthy see the protocol as “too restrictive”, mainly because the schems are required to establish an admission of guilt.

In response to an FOI request, the PSNI told agendaNi that since CRJI became accredited in 2008 it has referred one protocol case to the PSNI and since Alternatives became accredited in 2007 it has referred 10 protocol cases to the PSNI; four in 2009 and six in 2010. The majority of the groups’ work is on informal cases, therefore PPS referrals rarely occur.

McCarthy gives an example of a physical fight that broke out between two women neighbours over their children. Both women came to CRJI separately and when they were told a crime had been carried out and would have to be reported to the police, they were surprised and wanted to sit down together with CRJI as mediators.

“We done the paper work and this dragged on for six or seven weeks and had nearly sorted itself out by the time [the PPS] got back to us,” McCarthy states.

The protocol made cases “far more difficult” because the schemes have to establish an admission of guilt. “That’s investigating, which we don’t do,” he claims.

Watters agrees. “The problem is, if the police had the evidence to process that crime, they wouldn’t need the protocol. It comes into operation when the police have no knowledge of the crime. We are handing it over with an admission of guilt because there is no evidential foundation to process it.”

McCarthy recalls a riot which resulted in houses being destroyed and people fighting in the streets. When the police riot squad arrived McCarthy was called by both families involved. A police contact told him which six people they wanted and the charges against them. “I visited both families over the course of a few hours. My advice was to go to their solicitor. The cops pulled back to the fringes and they presented themselves at the station the next day. For me that’s proper protocol. You are just trying to keep the peace, keep it settled and work with the cops,” McCarthy says. He adds that he was thanked by the police because it saved them money.

Both community workers, who have acted as the go-between between the community and the police on many occasions, believe that the protocol doesn’t work for local communities and have requested that it be reviewed.

“I think they will be open to reviewing it,” Watters contends.

A Department of Justice spokesman confirmed that a review is scheduled to take place in 2011.

Funding is a key priority for Watters and McCarthy. “We need core funding,” she states, adding that if DSD’s Neighbourhood Renewal scheme is cut, Alternatives and CRJI “will be in major diffs.”

A forum in practice
Watters and McCarthy advocate a facility, like the Community Justice Centre in Liverpool, where different statutory agencies operate under one roof with a focus on restorative practices. Presided over by Judge David Fletcher, all the agencies are co- located in the centre, housed in a former primary school in a rough estate. Other services include drug and alcohol workers, debt counselling, housing advice and mediation.

“As opposed to just criminal justice, it sees justice as community safety, good mental health and having just and safe communities. It’s the essence of restorative justice,” Watters states. However, a similar facility for Northern Ireland is 10 to 15 years down the line, “if it happens at all,” she believes. McCarthy admires the way in which “the whole emphasis is on problem-solving rather than punishment.” He believes that people need to understand how the justice system works. “It’s a big piece of work but I think it’s important,” he concludes.

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