Introduction. The Shifting Signifiers of Community and Justice in Transitional Northern Ireland: some implications for women
This paper examines the place of community-based restorative justice in Northern Ireland’s ongoing transition from violent to non-violent conflict, and its gender implications. In the particular circumstances of transitional Northern Ireland, the institutions of policing and criminal justice are engaged in an ongoing project to build their own legitimacy within communities formerly alienated from those institutions. Community-based restorative justice projects (CBRJ) emerged in response to the absence of an effective (and in Republican1 areas, legitimate) community police force. Consequently, the continuation of these projects, and the relationship of the projects to newly reformed police and criminal justice institutions, has placed CBRJ at the very heart of political contestation in Northern Ireland.
This paper engages with this ongoing debate over the appropriate place and role of CBRJ in Northern Ireland’s new political dispensation, with particular reference to its implications for gender and women in the jurisdiction. I begin with an overview of the place of community in the Northern Ireland political system during the thirty years of political conflict,2 sketching the place of women, and CBRJ within this larger political landscape. I then move to an examination of Northern Ireland’s transition from political violence, with particular emphasis on the reassertion of the state and the shifting signifier of ‘community’ in this political transition. This section posits CBRJ projects as central to the reassertion of state authority in Northern Ireland. The next section involves detailed analysis of the political debate surrounding the appropriate place of CBRJ within Northern Ireland’s reformed criminal justice system and new political dispensation. The centrality of concerns expressed by women’s organizations in the debate is emphasized. The way in which the larger political debate constructed the relationship of women to community is particular the focus of analysis. I then move to a discussion of ‘justice’ as a shifting signifier in transitional Northern Ireland. The tussle between women and ‘community’ in the political debate surrounding CBRJ seems to posit equally unappealing paths of either rejection of women’s community identity, or subsuming gender interests to community. I therefore argue that women’s strategic interventions into the CBRJ debate (and attempts to influence the transition more broadly) are best pursued through engagement with the politically contested notion of justice in the jurisdiction.
Community versus State in the Northern Irish Conflict
Over the course of thirty years of communal violence, and a heavily militarized state, the Northern Irish political context was defined by deep ethnic divisions and a high level of alienation from state institutions.3 The existence of violent political opposition to the state’s very existence served as a daily reminder of its failure to secure popular consent. In this context, community became the central organizing unit of Northern Irish political life. Although more obvious in Catholic/Republican communities, a high degree of self-reliance and entrepreneurship existed at the community level in Northern Ireland. Further, the absence of local democratic structures, and the concentration of public policy decision-making within an unelected bureacracy, precluded the development of any sense of jurisdiction-wide community through democratic participation. Rather, ‘in the interests of getting the business of government done’,4 civil servants looked to community-based organizations for input in public policy decision-making and service delivery.5
Two specific aspects of this community organizing are worth mentioning here. Firstly, women were prominent in community organizations. It is estimated that, over the course of the Troubles, 5000 different community-based organizations dealing with a range of functions service provision and advocacy roles emerged. The majority of staff and volunteers in these organizations were, and continue to be, women.6 Many would argue that women constituted the backbone of these organizations, and not the leadership.7 Further, it has been suggested that women’s community-based political activity merely represented an extension of their maternal role, and consequently question the potential of this organizing to act as the basis for feminist activism.8 Nevertheless, in terms of women’s political activity in Northern Ireland, the community is where women are prominent (by notable contrast with democratic institutions).9
Secondly, the absence of community confidence in policing within working-class communities during the Troubles led to the development of a paramilitary role in ‘discipling’ young people engaged in anti-social behaviour. Violent, sometimes brutal, methods were employed. In response, community-based restorative justice projects evolved in certain areas in order to provide an alternative and non-violent means for addressing anti-social behaviour. These projects developed with no link to the formal criminal justice system., and concerns persist around the relationship of these organizations to paramilitary organizations. There is widespread acknowledgement that the projects involve former paramilitaries in leadership positions.10 Further, these projects are led exclusively by men, and largely deal with young male anti-social behaviour.11
The Shifting Signifier of ‘Community’ in Transitional Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland has recently emerged from a period of sustained violent social conflict. The major peace agreement in the jurisdiction, the Belfast Agreement (1998), was signed with the dual objectives of ending political violence, and securing the inclusion in state institutions of formerly excluded groups. Ideally, reformed state institutions offer mechanisms for the peaceful management of political conflict, thereby undermining incentives to return to violence.12 Therefore the Belfast Agreement provided for dramatic reform to key state institutions: policing, criminal justice, democratic institutions, human rights, and equality.13 In the Northern Irish context, the transition has also therefore been primarily concerned with a reassertion of the state securing popular legitimacy.
In terms of community-level political activity, this reassertion of the state and the reestablishment of democratic institutions has prompted concerns from community organizations that community groups will be displaced from their role in governance in Northern Ireland’s new political dispensation.14 There are concerns that the return of local democratic institutions will re-privilege political elites at the expense of some of the very innovative aspects of participatory democracy that evolved in Northern Ireland from the exigencies of the conflict.15 These developments carry a particular gendered impact. Women have predominated in community organizations. Further, there are important resonances between the experience of women’s community-based organizing in Northern Ireland and broader feminist organizing beyond the Northern Ireland context. Feminist campaigns have focused on so-called private sphere issues of childcare, rape, intimate violence, and health. When attempts were first made to raise these issues in formal political for a, ‘there was blank incredulity’.16 To the extent that these issues have now penetrated mainstream political debate, it has been largely due to links with this community based activism.17
However, the reassertion of the state in Northern Ireland has not been primarily defined as the displacement of ‘community’, rather there has been a concerted attempt to bring ‘community’ within state institutions. In particular, as the institutions vested with securing the integrity and order of the state, policing and criminal justice18 are engaged in an ongoing project to build their own legitimacy within communities formerly alienated from those institutions. For example, reforms to policing and criminal justice have involved the establishment of local District Policing Partnerships19 and Community Safety Partnerships,20 in order to facilitate community-level participation in deciding community safety and policing needs. In Northern Ireland during the Troubles, community-based restorative justice projects (CBRJ) emerged in order to address community policing needs, in the absence of an effective (or in Republican areas, legitimate) police force in the jurisdiction. In the post-settlement landscape, the continuation of these CBRJ projects, and their relationship to newly reformed police and criminal justice institutions, has placed CBRJ at the very heart of political contestation in Northern Ireland over the efficacy and degree of popular ‘buy-in’ to the reformed state institutions. CBRJ has become an important bellwether of broader state legitimacy.
The state’s own response to concerns expressed about paramilitary links of CBRJ projects has been to acknowledge NI’s peculiar transitional status from political violence, and therefore that ‘some people might find it distasteful that any legitimate organization should have contact with illegal paramilitary organizations. For the present, however, while NI is going through a transitional stage the practical reality is that it is necessary that such contacts be made.’21 There is widespread acknowledgment that these projects achieve their legitimacy within local communities due to the history of paramilitary membership of key staff.22 ‘Certainly, these projects from the beginning included people who had been involved in violence.’23 Further, these projects have been posited by state institutions as a means ‘to provide a line into the communities’ still alienated from police.24 One advocate of the project states: ‘community restorative justice projects are now poised to make perhaps their greatest contribution yet – as a new bridge between the state and society.’25
The unfolding political debate and the prominence of women
In the Criminal Justice Review mandated by the Belfast Agreement,26 the potential relationship of these CBRJ projects to the reformed criminal justice system was explicitly linked to questions over the legitimacy of policing and criminal justice. While proponents of community justice argued that whether and when ‘state agencies be brought on board these schemes had to be determined by the community’. The Criminal Justice Review noted: ‘This argument hinged on the perceived lack of legitimacy of the RUC and other criminal justice agencies in that areas that most needed the development of a restorative approach… where the criminal justice agencies and the criminal justice process were distrusted most.’ While the input of women’s organizations to the Criminal Justice Review was not specifically noted in this chapter of the Review, and sexual crimes and domestic violence were only mentioned once,27 this was ultimately exactly the terrain on which questions of the appropriate place of CBRJ projects within the criminal justice system would take place.
The unfolding of the accreditation and funding of CBRJ projects was complex and surrounded by political intrigue. When the first draft protocol for official accreditation of the schemes emerged from the Northern Ireland Office,28 it prompted heavy criticism from several quarters. This was primarily because the Protocol did not require direct engagement with the police as a precondition for accreditation, but there were also other concerns. In particular, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the main rival to Sinn Fein (the party closely allied to the IRA) for votes of nationalist community, came out very strongly against the draft guidelines.29
The reactions of both the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre and Foyle Women’s Aid to this controversy received unprecedented prominence. Both of the organizations came out very vocally in opposition to accreditation and funding of such schemes. They cited examples of CBRJ schemes dealing with incidences of sexual and domestic violence, chiefly in order to protect perpetrators with paramilitary connections.30 Marie Brown of Foyle Women’s Aid stated that the organization had been approached by the local CBRJ scheme, agreeing to refer cases to Women’s Aid if it agreed not to involve the police.31 The concerns of these organizations received a great deal of coverage by media outlets.32 Further, both the SDLP and former Irish Taoiseach, Garret Fitzgerald, cited concerns expressed by the violence against women sector as central to their objections to government accreditation of CBRJ schemes. The Protocol that was finally agreed by the Northern Ireland Office made substantial revisions to the 2005 draft, requiring direct police involvement in accredited schemes, a completely independent complaints mechanism, and more rigorous inspection by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate.33
The issue then moved to one of funding accredited schemes. Amid much controversy, the British government declined to fund the schemes on the basis of their failure to satisfy the requirements of the Protocol. CBRJ projects in Republicans areas have never formalized their relationship with the police; however project in Loyalist communities appears to have a good relationship with the police, and some include police officers on their board. According to Jim Auld of the main Republican CBRJ scheme, the government’s decision not to fund either Republican or Loyalist schemes demonstrated the government’s only real interest in CBRJ: ‘to legitimate the police’.34 Without community-based schemes from the Republican community coming within the criminal justice system, there is little incentive for the government to have a role in Loyalist community-based schemes, as the police do not suffer the same degree of perceived illegitimacy in those communities.35 When asked about concerns expressed by the violence against women sector as to government accreditation and funding of CRBJ schemes, Jim Auld’s response was two-fold. Firstly, he directed me back to the Rape Crisis Centre, and indeed, the Rape Crisis Centre does seem to have revised its opinion of the schemes, stating that they felt that their concerns had been ‘used as a political football [and] manipulated by political parties for their own ends.’36 In terms of concerns expressed by Foyle Women’s Aid, Jim Auld’s response was that Marie Brown was a member her local District Policing Partnership.37 The implication appeared to be that her concerns could therefore only be motivated by a desire to legitimate the police.
Are women members of ‘community’?
The manner in which the political debate surrounding the appropriate role of the CBRJ schemes in the criminal justice system unfolded is disconcerting for women in many respects. Firstly, women’s organizations were set apart from, and then set against, ‘community’ by the political actors who seized on their concerns in order to attack the community-based schemes. Further, proponents of CBRJ schemes rejected women from ‘community’, and allied them with the still dubious state, because of their dissent from the schemes. Foyle Women’s Aid concerns were dismissed as pro-state, because the Director had taken a seat on the new police structures.38 The actions of certain political actors in promoting the gender-based concerns about the scheme suggest a highly selective (and quite cynical) employment and deployment of gender as a political agenda in postsettlement Northern Ireland. Further, the response of CBRJ projects points to very little space for internal critique within the ‘community’ at the basis of these projects. This experience vindicates broader feminist unease with the idealization of community, which tends to lead to the suppression of internal dissent, ‘an inevitably side effect of a thoroughgoing social constructionist approach to moral and political value.’39 In a context where community cohesion is privileged above all else, there can be very damaging consequences for those seeking to move against apparent community consensus.
This episode does suggest a paradox between women’s exclusion from ‘community’, and their inclusion and prominence in the surrounding political debate. This would appear to place women quo women outside the community, but at the heart of a state of still dubious legitimacy. If, as in Northern Ireland, state legitimacy is seen as contingent on securing community involvement, but women are located outside of ‘community’, this effectively denies women any stake in constituting state legitimacy. At the same time, women experiencing violence within the community are particularly vulnerable to consequences of the state’s legitimacy deficit, given the additional barriers to availing of the state’s potentially protective role.40
Women in Northern Ireland and the Struggle for Justice
This is a complex - and for women, seemingly unwinnable – tussle between community and state in transitional Northern Ireland. It seems to echo long-running feminist debates around the efficacy of community as the central locus of political power, and unhelpful binary oppositions between liberalism and communitarianism.41 Consequently, this author proposes a shift in feminist focus away from ‘community’, to attend to the shifting notion of ‘justice’ in transitional Northern Ireland.
Elsewhere (with Christine Bell) I have argued that feminist interventions into transitional justice should be assessed on the basis of whether they help or hinder broader projects of securing material gains for women through transition.42 From this perspective, feminist interventions into political contestation surrounding ‘justice’ in postconflict Northern Ireland may best be understood as primarily strategic rather than theoretical. In this section, I echo this point.
At the heart of the Northern Irish transition is an attempt to deal with the justice gap43 – a gap not just in securing accountability for the crimes of the past by state and non-state actors, but a gap between competing visions of what justice in postconflict Northern Ireland should look like, and whether community or state should be its chief proponents. During the conflict, the state clearly did not have a monopoly on the delivery of justice. Indeed, for a substantial section of the population, the state was the primary site and conduit of injustice. In this context, a range of parallel community-based justice mechanisms emerged, such as CBRJ projects. In terms of the unfolding debate around CBRJ, it has been argued by proponents of restorative justice in Northern Ireland that these projects should be assessed on both technical and political grounds.44 Therefore, issues of crime reduction, rates of recidivism, and victim satisfaction, should be examined in assessments of CBRJ projects. However, in contexts such as Northern Ireland which are in transition from political violence, CBRJ projects should also be assessed on the extent to which they aid the transition.45 Former paramilitaries, it is argued, have embraced these projects as the non-violent practice of justice.46 Further, communities formerly demanding violent punishment for anti-social behaviour are now welcoming the individuals involved back into the community.47 Both technical and political aspects of CBRJ are posited as integral to the evolving notion of justice in Northern Ireland.48 ‘The transition to peace lays down a moral imperative … for justice practice that ameliorates the violence of the past.’49
I conclude here by drawing on Iris Young, to suggest that the opportunity for women to engage in ongoing contestation around justice in Northern Ireland, without requiring the rejection of community, is to adopt the role of ‘social critic’:
The social critic is engaged in and committed to the society he or she criticizes, She does not take a detached point of view toward the society and its institutions, though she does stand apart from its ruling powers. The normative basis for her criticism comes from the ideals and tensions of the society itself, ideals already there in some form, in espoused principles that are violated.50
Strategic feminist interventions into the contested meaning of justice in Northern Ireland, as played out in the CBRJ debate, would therefore be well-advised to focus on both the political and technical understandings of CBRJ. Firstly, if CBRJ is in fact to play a role in ‘ameliorat[ing] the violence of the past’, then the specifically gendered impact of the violence of the past must be articulated. Appeals to community may have shielded women from the worst excesses of the state, and were no doubt empowering in terms of positive group identity and relations of group solidarity.51 However, appeals to community manifestly did not protect women from violence perpetrated within the community.52 Indeed, the privileging of community effectively undermined any potentially protective role that might have been played by state institutions.53 There is a need to describe those instances in which ‘community’ acted against the interests or practice of justice.
Further, the political understanding of CBRJ carries very important implications for women, for example, in political leadership. The re-privileging of formerly violent actors in the community risks a continuation of the marginalization of women from political leadership positions in the jurisdiction. Indeed, the state proposes to appoint CBRJ projects as mediators between community and state,54 yet women are present neither as leaders or participants in these projects. The manner in which the political debate around CBRJ unfolded demonstrates the continuing role of interlocutors between women’s community-based activism and mainstream public debate. These observations suggest considerable challenge in translating women’s community activism into political leadership through the transition. Yet, CBRJ has been posited by its proponents as ‘a catalyst for transforming relations of power through advocacy, group, and community development and organization, and empowerment.’55 In articulating the tension between justice as espoused here, and justice as practiced, there may be potential to develop less exploitative formulations of both justice and community in Northern Ireland, the potential to recognize women’s gender-specific experiences and identities within – and not apart from – their political communities.