Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Inspirational speech by Violent Crime Reduction chief

I recently attended a presentation organised by the Belfast Policing and Community Safety Partnership, which was held at the Hilton Hotel, Belfast. This was a public event so I invited Naomi, an intern from Belgium University of Leuven to accompany me.  This was the first day of her placement and I believed that attending this presentation would inform her whole stay with us.
I say this because CRJI is based on a set of values and a community philosophy that no problem is too great and that for every problem there is a solution.
Giving the presentation was Karyn McCluskey, leader of the Violent Crime Reduction unit, Strathclyde Police, Scotland. She was an inspirational speaker who made an inspirational presentation.
Central themes quickly emerged from what Karyn said: innovation; no problem too big; investing in people of community; policing is not the answer to deep-rooted issues of crime; giving young people hope and most significantly of all that violent crime should be viewed as a health problem.
The above synopsis of what Karyn talked about was like listening to a CRJI presentation, which was great for Naomi. The added ingredient was how the presentation was delivered, Karyn’s style was what we expect in the community.
She was passionate, spoke in plain language talked about ‘I’ and ‘we’, our ‘team’ and as she did there was not one hint of self promotion. She spoke of people, families, hopes and dreams and key to this she said that she and like-minded people were “only enablers”. This hit the spot as CRJI have been saying this for years. We have consistently said to our practitioners that this is real empowerment.
Clearly Karyn McCluskey understands and promotes the idea that issues which originate in communities can best be resolved from within these communities. Unlocking the potential of community should be an aim for everyone in community through to all the relevant statutory agencies.
We already have evidence that this works, from sporting organisations like the GAA, boxing fraternity or athletics to the AA, youth, art and health groups. All make positive contributions to community and wider society because they have a clear focus of investing in people, and that folks is the key for us all if we are to collectively deliver safer caring communities.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Oireachtas committee hears CRJI presentation

I travelled to Dublin on Thursday 18 October to deliver a presentation to The Joint Committee of the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement at Leinster House. The presentation was delivered to a number of MPs from the North as well as TDs and Senators.
Community Restorative Justice Ireland and Northern Ireland Alternatives had been invited to do the presentation by Senator Martin McAleese who also attended the session.
My colleague Debbie Watters, assistant director of Northern Ireland Alternatives, travelled with me to Leinster House to do the presentation.
I have worked with Debbie Watters for many years delivering joint presentations and attending meetings with community and statutory bodies our work. We have developed a good rapport and have a shared vision on the worth and value of Restorative Justice.
The atmosphere in the committee room was both friendly and in many cases informed. It was clear from the outset that all who attended were there to listen and to discuss the import of our presentations.
We gave a historical perspective of how Restorative Justice has been developed in the communities in which we work. These communities may have different political and religious outlooks but the issues they face on a daily basis respect no such boundaries.
We explained how we impacted on punishment violence by armed groups but just as importantly how we began to employ the skills gained through training and experience across a wider range of disputes within our respective communities.
The question and answer session which followed the presentations were insightful and underpinned our belief that the effects of crime and anti-social behaviour are the same across the island of Ireland.
The TDs, MPs and Senators were interested about a number of areas of our work. What was our relationship with the criminal justice system? What was the breadth of our work? How did we view future developments within the field of Restorative Justice? They asked could there be a use for these approaches in the private sector or as a method of engaging former combatants.
Of course, the response was a positive on all these fronts. Restorative Justice approaches are so flexible that they can be used across a very broad range of issues in society. Restorative approaches are also determined and shaped by the values that underpin the ethos and philosophy of Restorative Justice.
In our daily work we use Restorative approaches in criminal justice work which includes police, probation, offenders and victims. We work with young people in a restorative manner and we are in partnerships with all the above as well as having projects with the Belfast Trust, Belfast City Council and the largest housing provider in the north, the Housing Executive.
Seven years ago we also instigated a school project which ran for three years with quite remarkable results. We publicised and launched the findings of this project in 2011 in a book called Beyond
the Three ‘Rs’
which is an extensive written account of the work of the project.

I have no doubt that the partnerships with the statutory agencies in the north can be replicated and adapted to suit in a southern context.
Equally our community office approach, which deals with so many issues, including preventative work with people before their issue reaches a statutory level,would be a valuable resource to any community across the island.
CRJI is a community friendly organisation which seeks to empower and develop the capacity of the communities in which we work to help build restorative responsive communities that can grow in the context of safety and respect.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Restorative Practice and Education

CRJI have spent the last week compiling a training programme for the introduction of Restorative practice in a school in Dublin City. It is some years since CRJI worked full time within the school setting culminating in a written account of the three-year project in a publication called Beyond the Three R’s. The title is a bit of a give away as we believe that not only should the school curriculum focus on the Three R’s of reading, writing and arithmetic but also on life skills such as conflict management and problem solving. We also believe that the best results in doing this can be achieved by the use of restorative approaches.

There are now countless publications, training organisations and aids when it comes to the subject of restorative justice in schools, not to mention the endless list of consultants who will leave you spellbound on the subject. However, we at CRJI like to take a much simpler view of it all and start with the greatest gift that restorative justice can give us, a value base.

Restorative practice is underpinned, informed and shaped by a value base of eight key components. These are participation, interconnectedness, honesty, humility, respect, accountability, hope and empowerment. Employing these values will quickly send out the message that the school that does this creates a single focus by saying that  “we are a school that values people”. This in turn will see an increase in academic activity for if pupils, parents and staff feel valued then they embrace the wider project of working together to educate our children.

Restorative Justice approaches will also help to develop schools as listening and feeling schools, thus building an environment where people matter, that it is important to put people first and when dealing with issues that have harmed people the restoration of relationships is a key element of the restorative process. This of itself is an education process as we promote new ways of dealing with harm by employing the restorative paradigm.

The restorative paradigm rather than focus on rule breaking looks to what has happened, who has been harmed and how we repair this harm. Again this puts people at the heart of a process while also empowering them to play a central role in the resolution. The empowerment of people should also be a focus of education.

What other benefits are there when we introduce these practices in the school setting? There are different models of school practice, well documented and articulated. In the case of the Dublin school we are looking at developing a Restorative Peer Mediation initiative which will also mean a certain amount of buy in from not only pupils but from staff who will need to be part of the project.

We would hope that this would become a first step for the school as they embrace the restorative values and concepts. CRJI would prefer that schools go for a whole school approach thus deepening and broadening the opportunities and potential positive outcomes. However RJ is people centric and the starting point of one will be different from another, what we really would like to see is the same destination being reached, a truly wholly inclusive way of problem solving which are underpinned by restorative values and processes. That would be something.



Friday, October 5, 2012

Piece written by Garrett Gorman - CRJI North Belfast

“I thought if I killed myself then they would leave my

sons alone and my mum could raise them”

Thus ended a conversation between a local woman, her mother and the North Belfast CRJI coordinator. It’s a blunt calculation. But one that has a terrible logic to a lady driven to the brink of suicide by drug dealers. Seeing no way to pay off a drug debt or escape the clutches of a local team of dealers. Our client had tried to kill herself; clinging to the hope that the threats to her children would end when her life did.

It’s not a unique story. The North Belfast office has dealt with many such cases. Sometimes all family possessions are sold and the debt (including the interest charged) is paid. Other times the family flees their home and community. And occasionally the suicide attempt is successful and homes are devastated by the loss of a father, mother, son or daughter. Experience tells us that in the case of the latter the dealers simply transfer the debt to surviving family members and the intimidation continues unabated.

Cases such as these are encountered by CRJI staff across Belfast, Derry, Newry and Armagh. Also working for some sort of resolution to this issue are suicide prevention organisations such as PIPS and a range of other drug and community groups.

As we have discovered in North Belfast there is no easy answer to the problem of drug dealing, addiction, debts, threats and ruined lives that inevitably follows in its wake. For our part we ensure every shred of information the community gives us about these dealers and those driving people to the brink of suicide is passed to the police – along with a demand for robust action to be taken. We refer those attempting or contemplating suicide to PIPS and, when requested, work with housing providers and other relevant agencies to get those under threat to a place of safety. 

While this intervention may help our clients – it is by no means a panacea to the growing problem of suicide due to drug debts. Much more needs to be done. CRJI does not have all the answers and we believe that there needs to be a coming together of those with a duty to these families. Our community needs these dealers in jail and off the backs of our most vulnerable members. Families and individuals under threat need support to prevent them even considering suicide as an option. Even dealers who are addicts themselves need help, support and treatment.

This tragic scenario is played out in every community across Ireland, Britain, Europe and beyond where drug dealers have a foothold. If we want to effectively address it here in Belfast, or Derry, Newry and Armagh then maybe we need to gather our partners and devise a more coordinated response. It’s certainly a daunting task. But CRJI remains ready to work with any and all statutory, voluntary and community organisations to prevent more names joining the list of those we have already lost through suicide and drugs.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Long Road

CRJI attended the preview of a play on Tuesday 2nd October at the Lyric Theatre. We had been invited through our work as CRJI practitioners given that the play would deal with some issues around the use of Restorative Practice. The event was well worth the effort, the play was first and for most an enjoyable piece of performance art but more importantly highlighted the issues for a family after the violent murder of their son.

The family issues were something I felt would immediately catch the focus, particularly for those who encounter people who have been badly affected by crime and it’s aftermath. The play drew out the relevant and sometimes poignant questions.

The offender was also well portrayed with a little more stereotypical context but nonetheless recognizable as people we would know.

The middle person was somewhat different from what we who work in the restorative field recognise but the centrality of trying to create a space for a victim offender encounter was underscored.

The plays big success for me was that it made you think. One of the lines ran something like “to understand is to change” change of course being a focus of restorative practice. If any thing the play should act as a platform in which to discuss the very important issues that are central to the play, they are issues that the Criminal Justice System grapples with day in day out and of course the introduction of the restorative paradigm creates a different viewpoint.

I would recommend that people go and see this play and enjoy the play for it’s own integrity, it’s script and the acting, you will get something out of the experience. For those interested in RJ and associated issues then the play will have a different resonance.

Speaking of resonance the play was called “The Long Road”, and as a colleague and myself attended we were accompanied by two serving police officers, yes folks, it has been a very long road.

Friday, September 21, 2012


I watched the aftermath of the report on the Hillsborough Disaster and like many people could only think about the dignity of the victims through the many years of adversary they have faced. It brought memories of victim issues closer to home be they victims of State or the various Armed Group violence; there emerges a very clear picture of the commonalities shared by victims. I don’t mean to categorise all victims for we must recognise victims are individuals with individual responses to their own personal loss or injury. However what does emerge for me around these issues are victim needs rooted in their quest for acknowledgement, apology and accountability. I could give a list of the cases that are recognizable not by the individual victims but by place or geography and that list would be quite extensive.

How does this connect with the work of CRJI you might be asking? CRJI has worked with countless victims down through the years, from people who are affected by low-level ASB issues through to the victims of serious crime including murder. Our experience is victims have very often-different sets of questions to ask about what has just occurred than those asked from the perspective of a police or criminal justice view. Why me? Does the offender know what they have done? Will they acknowledge that? Will I be safe in the future? Will they do it to me again? This is all underpinned by the need to know,  be known and recognised. These common themes are universal and in a restorative manner are the questions that we feel are part of a process when working with victims. We acknowledge that the criminal justice system does what it does but in the area of victims the victims needs and concerns should be central to the overall process of resolution.

Our work in the community has witnessed the power of dialogue in the most extreme of cases, I have written previously on this, the powerful empowerment for a victim to see and hear their concerns being dealt with not only unlocks a pathway forward for the victim but equally for an offender who will be faced with the hard questions, recognition of hurt but more importantly the difficult potential to change. This potential in our view is in need of support, for the achievement of change for an offender not only benefits them but also the wider community and ensures no other victims from that quarter.

The other common theme around victims that I’ve seen is that victims can very often be stereotyped as people so badly injured that they appear frail and fearful, almost intimidated in submission by what has occurred. While this may be true in some cases, our experience of victims that having been frightened, hurt and injured is that they also display a remarkable level of endurance to seek both the answers they need while also demanding the acknowledgement of their situation. It is this for me, that join the burglary victim, the elderly who suffer so much from ASB with the high publicity victims who have displayed so much courage and integrity in their search for justice.

This brings me to what for many is the real issue, does society have the tools to deal with victims?  From a restorative perspective I would say no. This position derives from the knowledge that victims aren’t viewed as key in the criminal justice process; rather what is important is what law has been broken, by whom and what is the result of the criminal justice process. This is of course is a simplified version of a complex system but it is vital for the system to adopt and develop a restorative approach which will give victims a role in the justice process, which will also create the potential for offenders to face the consequences of their actions and above all create a threshold for both, victim and offender to cross and begin to see events from another place.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

All Island Retorative Justice Conference set in motion

Restorative Justice practice is happening the length and breadth on the island of Ireland. Be it in criminal justice, probation, the care sector, community projects, schools, courts and prisons, restorative techniques are being employed across a huge swath of society. That's the message I took from the meeting held in Ballybot House Newry.

The meeting, organized by the Restorative Justice Forum N.I. was aimed at investigating what was happening across the island in restorative justice and to see how practitioners felt about the possibility of an all island conference on RJ.

There was a good vibe in the room around the idea as presented by the Forums event subgroup.
As with all RJ gatherings a similar set of themes emerges, relationships, inclusivity, sharing and building seem to resonate and settle to be the foundations of a way forward. This is key when like-minded people start to plan an event that aims to promote and develop restorative practice across the island.

It was also refreshing to be in a room where people were speaking positively of their experience of restorative practice, there was no one to convince of the value of RJ as a model of good working practice. This was most refreshing as we went straight to business, discussion followed by agreement followed by discussion and further agreement. Believe me that’s how it went, a good day’s work done and by the end of the session a very clear picture was emerging of what the event will look like.
So now for the hard work, the conference content, the meat in the proverbial sandwich. There was however some good suggestions on this and even more so on the idea of joint presenters highlighting the difference in RJ practices across the island. This may be done in a north/south basis that will really throw up the gaps and difference.

There was also much discussion on what and who should our target audience be? Again we felt we should look to invite practitioners who will have a wealth of knowledge but also legislator’s who at the end of the day help to create the legal framework in which RJ is located within a variety of fields. I think it crucial that we seek to influence those people who can with our experience put RJ up the agenda thus ensuring that we really are starting to build.

A key discussion was the choice of a keynote speaker. No agreement on this one yet although some very solid suggestions in the hat both from an international view through to more home-grown talent.
This was another theme from today’s event, the theme that said that we are well-developed in our knowledge and skill base in using RJ practice. This demonstrates an underlying confidence in what and how we have been doing things and this augur’s well for the future.

Finishing up we have committed to the event, some of the agenda, the venue and future meetings to plan the event further still. I can hardly wait for the event itself; it will make a change to be staying on home soil for an RJ conference, that’s a change in itself.