28 February 2006

SDLP slams neighbourhood justice funding plans

BN.ie

28/02/2006 - 10:07:20

The nationalist SDLP will today launch a hard-hitting critique of British government plans to fund neighbourhood justice schemes in the North.

The party will launch its document on community restorative justice in Belfast as Northern Ireland Office Minister David Hanson’s consultation on the proposals continued.

The party is expected to be highly critical of the British government’s proposal that in republican areas that do not recognise police reforms, community restorative justice groups could apply to handle certain cases without directly consulting the police.

An SDLP source compared the proposal to “Chinese whispers”, and claimed that it was not conducive to the prosecution of crime.

“The same system of third-party communication with the police was put in place to assist the investigation into the murder of (Belfast father-of-two) Robert McCartney,” the source said.

“Because of Sinn Féin’s refusal to deal with the police, it was agreed that the office of the Police Ombudsman could be used as an intermediary.

“Police had to send questions in writing to the Ombudsman, who forwarded them to those in the bar where Robert McCartney was attacked, they in turn sent written statements back, but it has failed to bring about any prosecutions.

“Now David Hanson expects us to believe that a similar system of communication will protect human rights.”

Unionists, nationalists and former Irish Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald have been critical of the British government’s plans, claiming they could hand control of law and order in loyalist and republican areas to vigilante groups.

Community restorative justice groups bring the victims of low-level crime face-to-face with the alleged perpetrators to resolve their differences and find a way of compensating the victim.

The schemes have been operating in loyalist and republican neighbourhoods and have been funded privately.

But with the money due to run out in April 2006, Sinn Féin and supporters of community restorative justice have been pressing the British government to give state funding to the programs.

Critics have warned that the schemes may be used by republicans to exert greater paramilitary control – a fear also voiced by the North’s ceasefire watchdog, the Independent Monitoring Commission.

Supporters, however, insist that the schemes have provided a viable alternative to the rough justice meted out by paramilitary groups, such as beatings, so-called punishment shootings or expulsions.

As well as having concerns that restorative justice groups will be allowed under the British government’s scheme to avoid direct communication with the police and instead contact the Probation Board and Youth Justice Agency as intermediaries, the SDLP is also expected to press for more adequate inspection of the schemes, better training and an independent statutory complaint system.

It is also anticipated that the party will stress that it believes restorative justice is a good idea where groups cooperate directly with the police and show they accept the rule of law.

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