Return to Peace Process menu
The politics of restorative justice 

JM Thorn 

11 August 2008

“Community restorative justice in Northern Ireland has never been about restorative justice, but about politics and policing”.  Chief Inspector, PSNI North Belfast, 2006

At the end of July the British security minister announced that restorative justice schemes in nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry had been given official accreditation by the government.   Paul Goggins said he had "no cause for concern in the way that Community Restorative Justice (Ireland) schemes now operate".  What this means is that these schemes can now apply for state funding. An example of the sort of finance on offer came just a week earlier when the Government announced that five accredited schemes operating in loyalist areas would receive £600,000 over three years.  The official endorsement of restorative justice schemes in nationalist areas marks the culmination of the gradual process of republicans being drawn into the policing and judicial structures of the northern state


From their inception in the 1990’s community restorative justice schemes have acted as a mechanism for demobilising the provisional movement.  They offered an alternative to IRA vigilantism and helped build up relations between republicans and the institutions of the state.  The main force behind the establishment of these schemes in nationalist areas was Sinn Fein, with leading figures boasting of the party’s role in setting them up.  Moreover, the personnel of the CRJ schemes throughout the north were closely identified with the provisional movement, and included a number of former IRA prisoners.  In this early period Sinn Fein urged people to support CRJ on the basis that it offered a “viable alternative to the PSNI”.  This claim was totally bogus.  In both practical and political terms CJR schemes could not offer an alternative structure of policing and justice.  They were indirectly feeding into the existing policing and judicial structures, and would require state support for their longer-term existence. 

In this early period CRJ schemes were completely dependent on the financial support of Irish American billionaire Chuck Feeney.  His Atlantic Philanthropies foundation has supported CRJ schemes in both loyalist and nationalist areas for the last ten years.  More broadly Feeney has been the major private sponsor of the peace process.   Between 1992 and 2002 his foundation donated $702m to organisations and institutions across Ireland. 

Much of Feeney’s time and finances have been devoted to bringing Sinn Fein into the political mainstream.   From 1995 on, for three years, he personally provided the Sinn Fein office in Washington with $720,000.    Feeney stated that this goal “was to establish to put Sinn Fein on a respectable platform where they could say 'this is what Sinn Fein does, we're not the IRA'."  In subsequent years Feeney has provided a substantial part of the funds for Sinn Fein’s Washington office.   Feeeney has also provided £2 milion to help ex-prisoners become involved in "positive political and community development".  A proportion of the latest funding for CRJ schemes was also provided by Atlantic Philanthropies. 

Atlantic Philanthropies programme director Martin O’Brien justified this on the basis that it would “make a valuable contribution to building a more stable society in Northern Ireland.”  But what is being stabilised in the North is imperialist rule.  The type of society that is being built is one that is founded on sectarian divisions and with the local working class set up as fodder for international capitalism.  No wonder it has such an appeal for an American billionaire!


Although the concept of restorative justice has been around for some time, and schemes operate in jurisdictions around the world, its operation in the North cannot be judged on the same terms.  As the quote which heads this article suggests, here they are primarily about politics rather than justice.  In the case of the loyalists they are part of the huge patronage that has been bestowed on them throughout the period of the peace process.  This is just out and out corruption with loyalists pocketing millions from bogus community projects. 

Northern Ireland Alternatives (NIA), the restorative justice scheme which operates in loyalist areas, is part of this.  Headed by a former UVF prisoner, it has a number of prominent loyalists on its staff.  From its inception it has been fully accredited and worked directly with the police and other statutory agencies. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) sits on its board.  This endorsement by the state is particularly scandalous as throughout the period of its existence loyalists have been deeply involved in criminality and violence.  It has also been claimed that NIA has been involved in vigilantism, supporting the expulsion of people who are alleged to be engaged in anti-social behaviour. The loyalist schemes are particularly corrupt because the relationship of Loyalism to the majority of Protestant workers has always been one of bullying and coercion. State sponsorship of NIA tells these workers that they needn’t look to the police to break the grip of their vicious parasites

There is also an element of corruption with the restorative justice schemes that operate in nationalist areas.  Like its loyalist counterpart Community Restorative Justice (Ireland) is headed and staffed by people associated with the republican movement.  However, along with patronage there has been pressure on these schemes to co-operate with state institutions.  The government dangled the carrot of funding for CRJ, but this was conditional on support for the police.  This was the main thrust of the protocols on restorative justice issued by the British Government in 2006.  The security minister at the time David Hanson stated that while such schemes were integral to the Good Friday Agreement "any schemes which go ahead must be locked into policing and comply fully with the rule of law".  For the Government the “centrality of the police” was “non-negotiable”.  And indeed this is how events unfolded.  CRJ only became eligible for funding once it began co-operating fully with the police.   The sequence of events also revealed the degree to which CRJ is aligned with Sinn Fein.  Co-operation with police followed almost immediately on from the party’s political endorsement of the PSNI. 


In terms fulfilling its stated purpose of reducing crime, community restorative justice schemes can only be judged a failure.  Their existence has done nothing to arrest the decay in society and the associated anti-social behaviour and violence.  This is particularly marked in nationalist areas where an increase of lawlessness has gone hand in hand with the political decay of Sinn Fein.  Periodically there is community outrage at some particularly heinous murder or assault, but this soon dissipates as people see no mechanism through these problems can be addressed.  The standard response of Sinn Fein is to wring their hands, direct people towards to the PSNI and call for more resources to be pumped into the professional community sector staffed by its members.  This all contributes to the downward spiral that has demoralised and demobilised the base of the republican movement. 

It has been alleged that CRJ schemes have played a role in covering for criminals associated with the Provos.  These allegations have included the case of a CRJ member who failed to make a statement about a serious assault they witnessed as it would have implicated IRA members.  The case involved a person being attacked for failing to pay “compensation” that CRJ dictated should be paid. Another example was a CRJ member encouraging a family member not to proceed with charges against IRA personnel who were involved in a serious assault.    A further case was a CRJ member informing a person that there was a threat against his life in order to get the person to attend a meeting. It is alleged that a CRJ member attempted to mediate in a planning dispute by subverting the planning system.  It was also alleged that a prominent IRA man who was a member of CRJ sexually assaulted two young girls. 

The most serious allegation made against CRJ was that some of its members helped cover up the murder of Robert McCartney.  At the time these claims were made his sisters called for a rethink on Government proposals for community restorative justice schemes. Catherine McCartney said they didn’t think the British government understood “the context of how it works on the ground in areas like the Short Strand and the Markets.”  This assumption of ignorance on the part of the British is naïve.  They knew well what role CRJ was playing within these areas. The fact is that they were and are prepared to sacrifice the victims of both loyalist and republican crime in order to keep the settlement in place. 


Community restorative justice was never a serious project in the North.  The schemes were either a pay off, as in the case of loyalists, or a staging post towards the full acceptance of the state, as in the case with republicans.  They will continue to exist as part of the patronage of the peace process, along with the Policing Board and DPPs.  In nationalist areas restorative justice schemes will be integrated into the policing structures of the state and promoted as evidence of that community’s endorsement of the PSNI.  In the face of opposition to the settlement they have the potential to take on a more coercive role in clamping down on political dissent.  Whatever they are or will become, there is one thing for sure - it will never have anything to do with justice. 



Return to top of page