Northern Ireland: New Proposals for Justice Schemes

Police must be involved in community restorative justice schemes or funding will be denied, the government says. Publishing new draft proposals for 12-week consultation, Justice Minister David Hanson said he accepted previous plans “did not get it right”. “Society would not tolerate officially approved schemes becoming a tool for local paramilitary control, and nor will the government,” he said.

Restorative justice is designed to bring together victims and offenders. It is an attempt to resolve their differences at a community level without going through the courts.

Currently in Northern Ireland, 15 schemes operate in nationalist areas while there are five loyalist projects.

Mr Hanson said such schemes were integral to the Good Friday Agreement, but “any schemes which go ahead must be locked into policing and comply fully with the rule of law”.

A key change to the initial proposals is the removal of the reporting of offences through a third party to the police. Under the new proposals, any criminal offences would only be referred to such schemes by police.

Mr Hanson said: “The protocol now requires that schemes engage, and have a direct relationship, with police on all matters governed by the protocol.

“The centrality of the police to the way in which schemes operate is non-negotiable.”

The community restorative justice schemes are controversial because some former paramilitary prisoners are involved.

The government guidelines say no-one currently involved in paramilitary organisations can be part of a scheme – but anyone with a pre-1998 Agreement terrorism conviction may be allowed to be involved. Those who operate the schemes may decide to ignore the guidelines – but only those who sign up to them will be eligible to apply for government funding.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan said that despite some improvements, the restorative justice protocols were “damaging to the rule of law and leave working class communities in danger of very rough justice.”

“The NIO are spinning that they have taken account of the SDLP’s concerns,” he said.

“In fact, the only significant improvement is that there is now a requirement that restorative justice groups deal directly with the police. But it is possible for them only to do so in writing – without actually sitting down with the police and answering their questions.”

The UUP’s Fred Cobain said he was glad the government had revised its previous guidelines, but there were still concerns about the latest proposals.
“David Hanson has conceded that government got it wrong with their previous guidelines, and stated that he has now published a robust new protocol.

“He was spot on with the former, but way off with the latter.”

Alliance leader David Ford welcomed the publication of the guidelines but said he was concerned that the document was not clear enough in outlining the vetting procedure for individuals involved in projects. He said: “I am very glad that schemes will only receive funding if they comply with the guidelines set out by the government and work in close co-operation with the police.

“Today’s announcement, however, does not make it clear where intelligence on whether an individual is involved in paramilitary activity will come from.”

Conservative NI spokesman David Lidington said the proposals were “flawed and unacceptable”.

“The vetting arrangements specifically allow for people with substantial criminal convictions before 1998, such as the murder of police officers, to be active players in CRJ schemes.

“This would be unacceptable anywhere else in the United Kingdom and should not be tolerated in Northern Ireland.”

Earlier, Jim Auld, from Community Restorative Justice Ireland, said he did not see the need for police intervention because all their staff were already vetted. “Everybody in the CRJI, everybody, both staff and volunteers, are put through the government’s own vetting agency,” he said.

“We get a full breakdown of everybody’s past criminal convictions. So, I do not know what the argument is there.”

There are three types of restorative justice schemes operating in Northern Ireland.

Youth Conferencing is government sponsored and regulated and works with the police, Courts Service and Public Prosecution Service. It dealt with 299 cases last year.

Community Restorative Justice Ireland, which operates in some nationalist areas, has no working relationship with the police, PPS or courts. It says it dealt with 1,700 cases last year.

Northern Ireland Alternatives operates in five loyalist areas. It does not work with the PPS or the Courts Service, but works with the police. It says it dealt with 300 cases in 2005.