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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
CRJ — New Name for the IRA?


We can`t have local warlords being turned into local law lords
- SDLP leader, Mark Durkan


Anthony McIntyre • Parliamentary Brief, December 2005

With the wags chirping that ten out of every nine people no longer believe a word uttered by Sinn Fein, the party is managing to unite against itself an array of normally disparate tendencies, long frustrated with its endless procrastination and self-serving elongation of the peace process. In recent months this opposition has coalesced around concerns over the function of Community Restorative Justice (CRJ) schemes that operate in many of Northern Ireland's deprived areas. It voices grave reservations, less about CRJ as a theoretical concept but rather about its practical working out on the streets and the standards of accountability that it is held to.

In an environment where elements of the policing and justice system are frequently referred to by way of acronyms, ASBO and CRJ are two that feature prominently. Whereas ASBOs, notwithstanding the controversy they generate, are an integral part of the criminal justice armoury, the status of CRJ is much more contested. Ostensibly an independent body dedicated to the peaceful resolution of neighbourhood disputes and low level crime, it is not viewed as such by its many critics, one of whom is the former SDLP mayor of Belfast, Alban Maginness. He contends that CRJ 'is about control and power, it's not really about justice.' For Maginness and fellow sceptics, the power behind the CRJ throne is the IRA.

The SDLP has headed the pack of political parties raising serious questions about possible government financial endorsement of a body which leading Sinn Fein member, Catriona Ruane claimed is intended to function as an alternative to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Downing Street, in reportedly defiant mood, initially seemed prepared to ignore all objections and in time honoured fashion cut a deal with Sinn Fein that would see CRJ funded and effectively handed a license to incongruously uphold the law by operating outside it. It then found itself pulled up sharp due to serious misgivings being publicly vented by the chair of the policing board, Sir Desmond Rea and PSNI assistant chief constable Judith Gillespie. With too many opponents on too many fronts, Blair's office was forced to take its fingers out of it ears.

While steadfastly refusing to cooperate with the police, to the consternation of its critics, in the six years it has been functioning CRJ has established 14 projects while another 12 are still maturing. They are based primarily in Belfast and Derry, where charitable funding has been provided. Elsewhere, Newry, South Armagh and Downpatrick, the projects are maintained in a voluntary capacity. CRJ purportedly deals with approximately 1,700 cases annually, which involve about 6,000 people. It claims to train around 160 people a year as volunteers and at any given time has 120-130 people in the field. Its boss, Jim Auld, points out that it is fully audited each year and is independently evaluated by a leading US academic. The Criminal Justice Oversight Commissioner, Lord Clyde favourably appraised CRJ saying: 'these organisations are engaged in valuable and effective work in their communities. Their growth gives evidence of the value they have.'

None of this has placated the critics, all of who reject the benign inference such characterisation lends to CRJ. Belfast based blogger, Carrie Twomey, caustically observed:

CRJ is the back door for the residue of the Provos as far as 'legitimate' control in nationalist estates … where Provos go when they retire. So they can still get the feeling of authority and the bat … every nationalist estate that is dominated by the Provos has tales of child molesters, rapists, even, as we have so graphically seen in the Short Strand, murderers, who are given the get-out-of-jail-free pass by virtue of their membership/standing in a particular movement. Would CRJ stand up to this?

Only last week two prominent Irish journalists, Suzanne Breen and Newton Emerson, wrote devastating critiques of CRJ, which called into question many of its operating procedures. Emerson punched holes in its claims to be behaving in accordance with the Vienna Declaration of Basic Principles on Restorative Justice. Breen quoted the head of the North's Rape Crisis Centre, Eileen Calder as saying:

It was the gang rape of a young woman. The perpetrators' families were associated with the Provisional IRA and CRJ. Known IRA men were seen cleaning up the scene. These people did their utmost to prevent this young woman reporting the crime to police … at worst, they've threatened women and attempted to cover up crimes committed by those with IRA, Sinn Fein or CRJ connections. Allowing such people power is like letting the lunatics run the asylum.

The highly charged debate takes place against a political backdrop where inertia passes for momentum. Sinn Fein, the one party unequivocally backing CRJ, is adopting a strategy which, from its own perspective, is cogent enough. It argues that the PSNI is not yet an acceptable police force but contends that it will drop its opposition to it as soon as devolved powers of policing and justice become available. Reasonable enough, were it not for the fact that before that stage is even reached devolution itself must return to the North. And Sinn Fein's alter ego, the IRA, has done enough through having robbed the Northern Bank last December to ensure that there is no mood in the unionist community for the resumption of a devolved power-sharing executive. Sinn Fein hopes that Ian Paisley's DUP will take the blame for this. In the meantime Sinn Fein, from the very hiatus it helped create, lobbies for some form of interim policing measures totally independent of any PSNI input or supervision.

Many throughout Northern Irish society are worried that if Sinn Fein is successful in persuading the British government to sign up to this agenda, then there will be no early resolution of the outstanding issue of when nationalists fully endorse the police and that a two tier policing system will emerge - one that is subject to public scrutiny and another that operates in the shadows.

Critics of CRJ fear that current practice provides a window on the future if the government accedes to Sinn Fein pressure. For them, what initially started out as a good idea has become progressively warped in direct proportion to Sinn Fein's input into it. Evidence on the ground would lend weight to these fears. Whereas previously young people would actually threaten to report to the CRJ any IRA members who were giving them grief, there are few who make any such distinction today. A common refrain from young people advised to raise their concerns with the CRJ is 'sure that's just the IRA.' It is hard to persuade them otherwise when the CRJ officials include in their number many former IRA prisoners such as Harry Maguire, sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of killing two British Army corporals captured at an IRA funeral in 1988. And their doubts are enhanced when they learn that one senior CRJ official has lobbied for a prominent critic of Sinn Fein to be murdered, while another was part of a mob that besieged the home of a writer who had called for a transparent community inquiry into the IRA murder of a local man.

Moreover, many people 'requested' to attend a CRJ office admit to going out of fear of the consequences for failing to show up. Despite Jim Auld's protestations that CRJ performs no coercive function it is invariably made clear to those whose attendance is required rather than desired that the CRJ is the sheath that masks the sword. In this sense Auld's claim to be 'taking power and responsibility away from republicans, in terms of dealing with anti-social behaviour, and giving it to the community where it needed to belong' is dubious.

Many who believe in the value of a CRJ project that is accountable and transparent are now trying to raise the democratic bar in order to prevent the emergence of a state legitimised vigilante operation, which is answerable only to itself. It is too early to say definitively if they have succeeded. If they fail, the state, which claims as a fundamental principle the protection of those it governs, will have abandoned many citizens to the dubious justice that is devised in smoke filled rooms.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

24 December 2005

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