Community justice

By Linda J. Kobert
Meghan Sullivan

Photo by Andrew Shurtleff.

In Northern Ireland they call it “The Troubles.”

Civil strife has plagued this part of the United Kingdom for more than 30 years. The complex conflict pits Irish unionists against British loyalists, Catholics against Protestants, the working class against the economically advantaged, and paramilitary groups such as the republican Provisional Irish Republican Army against the loyalist Ulster Defense Association.

It was into this partisan morass that Meghan Sullivan (Politics, Philosophy ’05) plunged during the summer of 2003 to study restorative justice in Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital city. Sullivan received a Harrison Undergraduate Research Grant to examine third-party organizations that act to resolve antisocial crimes.

“My project was studying community justice groups,” Sullivan explained. “Do they in fact solve problems, and what are the big hurdles these groups face.”

Restorative justice is a new political theory that emphasizes restitution for victims of antisocial crimes rather than focusing exclusively on punishing offenders. Proponents of this theory suggest that this sort of victim involvement helps heal the wounds caused by crime and facilitates the offender’s eventual return to the community.

In Northern Ireland, this community reconciliation is especially challenging. In addition to the typical antisocial crimes that afflict modern cities — theft, gang activity, drug-related violence — Belfast is at the center of the country’s partisan conflict, and after years of serious civil rights infringements, said Sullivan, no one trusts the police.

“Every Catholic family in Northern Ireland can think of some acquaintance or family member who was locked up in Maze Prison or was the victim of police violence,” she explained.

Protestants, too, said Sullivan, feel betrayed by the police and local government. As a result, during the Troubles, it was the paramilitary organizations that stepped in to take justice into their own hands with violent, vigilante-style remedies to small, antisocial crimes.

Recently, however, the growth of the peace movement has inspired people in the insular, partisan communities that honeycomb Belfast to seek new solutions.

“[People] don’t want to go to the IRA to seek remedies for crimes,” Sullivan explained. “They still don’t trust the police to help in these situations, but they also don’t think 15-year-olds should be shot in the knees for stealing a car,” which is typical of the paramilitary approach to justice. 

This need for a third alternative has given rise to community justice groups such as Greater Shakehill Alternatives in the Protestant community and Community Justice Northern Ireland from the Catholic community. Still partisan and still outside the legal justice system, these organizations offer a kind of mediation service between victims and offenders.

“When a crime happens,” Sullivan said, “these people from the Catholic and Protestant communities sit down with offenders and victims and talk through the process trying to use restorative justice approaches as much as possible.”

While this process is a long way from perfect — these groups still don’t work well in situations involving violent crime, and avoiding coercion in getting offenders to participate in the reconciliation process is still a problem — Sullivan found that people do come to these restorative justice groups, and the groups do help solve problems.

Sullivan, who heads back to Britain in September as a Rhodes Scholar, is intrigued by the philosophical implications of this success. “If [these groups] could be successful,” she said, “then there is a possibility of having justice systems without states, which is one of the biggest questions in political theory and anarchy: the idea of whether or not you need these big sophisticated governments to handle the basic problems of living together.”