28 January 2006

Blowing the myths about CRJ

Daily Ireland

Tony O’Doherty is the best known face of Community Restorative Justice (CRJ) in Derry. In recent months CRJ, has been described as a vigilante group or a front for the republican movement. O’Doherty, a former Northern Ireland international soccer player and Derry City manager, hardly fits the mould of a “RA Special” as one prominent politician described CRJ and its members recently. Here, Tony explains why CRJ is so important to his community.

Eamonn Houston

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Tony O’Doherty is a well-known face in Derry’s Creggan estate. For years he has been at the heart of his community, as a sportsman and as a Community Restorative Justice (CRJ) volunteer.

In recent months, the issue of CRJ and its role in communities has been the subject of political verbal tennis. One particularly vitriolic attack came from SDLP justice spokesman, Alban Maginness. He compared CRJ projects to the infamous B-Special auxiliary police.
“The SDLP did not accept the B-Specials. We will not accept the RA-Specials either,” he said.
The attack was part of a fusillade of criticism of CRJ by the SDLP.
The allegations have irked Tony O’Doherty. The sprightly 58-year-old Creggan man has never been a member of a political party and has never been involved in a paramilitary group.
Instead, he is known as a former International soccer player, part of the management team that saw Derry City FC revived in the mid-1980s and a tireless community worker. He is a married father of four.
O’Doherty, whose energy is apparent in his naturally demonstrative manner, is keen to talk about his work in CRJ and the myths that he sees as blurring the ethos of the organisation.
Creggan, the sprawling nationalist estate where O’Doherty has lived for most of his life, has had its problems. At the outset of the Troubles, the estate was part of what became known as Free Derry. On Bloody Sunday, the majority of those shot and killed were from the estate.
In recent years, as the North began to emerge from conflict, the transition to a more peaceful environment posed its own problems. With a policing void threatening the very social fabric of an estate that had endured many tragedies during the conflict, O’Doherty and others set about organising at a grass-roots level to address issues that affected the “quality of life” of the community.
He says those issues are ones the criminal justice system is unable to deal with. They are largely social issues – on-street drinking, drugs concerns, housing issues and disputes. Local knowledge comes into its own in such situation and O’Doherty and his fellow CRJ volunteers see themselves as facilitators rather than enforcers.
He is hurt and offended by allegations that CRJ is simply another manifestation of the punishment squads of the Troubles.
In a typical week O’Doherty holds down a 38-hour a week job. When he finishes, his mobile seldom stops. On an average week his work with CRJ eats into another 20 hours of his daily life.
It is time readily given.
“I would welcome any criticism or critique of CRJ that is based on the facts of the matter,” he says, “There has been a lot of hysterical name calling that has been purely political. The most important people to me are the victims and potential victims within our community and this has somehow been ignored as the political snowballs are being thrown.”
O’Doherty is stung by criticism that the organisation is answerable only to Sinn Féin and republicans.
His response is emphatic: “If I thought for one moment that CRJ was a political organisation, or run by a political organisation, I would resign immediately. That’s the proof in the pudding. I would challenge anyone to find one incident, one event, in which we tried to modify someone’s political thinking or how they voted.
“A victim is a victim – pure and simple. Most of the criticism has come from the SDLP, but I don’t want to enter an argument, there are many tremendous and forward-thinking people within the SDLP, but I think that some in the party are emotionally blinkered when it comes to the issue of Community Restorative Justice.”
O’Doherty says CRJ volunteers will be in the Creggan area “night after night”.
“It is impossible to define a typical night. We don’t go into Creggan with a set agenda. We do a lot of outreach work, organise youth groups, soccer tournaments and local festivals. These are hardly the activities of some specialist paramilitary unit.”
O’Doherty firmly believes that, even if the policing debate was resolved to every political party’s satisfaction, CRJ projects across the North will still have a major role to play in communities.
“No police service in the world could provide such a service – it is just impossible because of the resources it would take.”
This argument is the one that O’Doherty focuses on most passionately.
“We are not trying to be the criminal justice system, or a new criminal justice system. We deliver social justice along the lines of the old Irish tribal systems with a strong ‘look after’ community view. This community view prevails in CRJ.”
O’Doherty says he has lost count of the occasions he has personally invited local members of the SDLP to join CRJ on the streets and observe the nature of its work.
His respect in his community is not up for debate. O’Doherty featured in the Northern Ireland squad for two seasons, 1969-70 and 1970-71. He played with, among others, George Best and Pat Jennings.
“If somebody can find that we deal only with republican clientelle or a particular political ethos then I challenge them to do so. We don’t. That just doesn’t happen. I would love to see the SDLP represented on our neighbourhood boards. What we deal with is items that affect the quality of life within our community. A proper policeman deals in crime.”
O’Doherty terms CRJ cases as “referrals”.
“In a two-sided dispute, if the people do not want our service then we respect that. We don’t impose our solutions on them. A lot of people are not best served by the British criminal justice system – that hasn’t properly served the people of England, never mind here.”
O’Doherty takes a long view of the CRJ’s future role.
“We are not about quick fixes. A lot of people give us respect because we do this on a voluntary basis. We can’t be used as a political football and we are not going to disappear. CRJ has a role for a long time to come, but we don’t believe that we are the only people. Political sound bites do not help this debate, we deliver for our own people. We deal with people across the social spectrum and don’t categorise anyone.”
That former political prisoners are among those who carry out CRJ work, is not surprising given the areas that the projects operate in.
“As chairperson, former political prisoners take directions from me, not the other way around. Decisions are taken either on behalf of the community or the victim. It will never be any other way,” O’Doherty says.
“People often say to me ‘how do you do it’ and I always ask ‘why aren’t you doing it’. These are your sons, brothers and sisters and they will have the children and grandchildren of the future.”

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