19 May 2006

Policing board rejects British proposals

Frank Millar, London Editor
19 May 2006

The Northern Ireland Policing Board has rejected the British government's proposed guidelines for the operation of Community Based Restorative Justice Schemes (CBRJ) to deal with "low-level crime" in loyalist and republican areas.

The SDLP has been leading the opposition to the British government's Draft Guidelines - fearing restorative justice schemes will provide cover for extending paramilitary control in the communities, and a new form of "political policing" which the Patten reforms were designed to eliminate.

And the party's fears have been reflected by unionist members of the policing board, who agree the proposed operation of the schemes would permit CBRJ representatives to effectively "bypass the police in their engagement with the criminal justice system" in the North.

In a cross-party submission to criminal justice minister David Hanson ahead of publication of his final proposals next month, the policing board insists that CBRJ schemes cannot be allowed to participate in the criminal justice system without giving "unqualified acceptance" to the role of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). And it says schemes refusing to recognise the police should be denied "the imprimatur of the state."

This emerged last night as SDLP and DUP members of the board insisted that Mr Hanson should present his proposed final "guidelines" to them in advance of a public announcement believed to be scheduled for June 18th.

And news of the board's uncompromising response confirmed that the issue of restorative justice schemes is integral to the entire policing debate, which DUP leader the Rev Ian Paisley says must be resolved as part of any powersharing devolution deal in November.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain has attempted to allay concerns about the CBRJ issue, suggesting that the final proposals brought forward by the government will "of course" have to be agreed with the PSNI.

In a previously unpublished extract from an interview with The Irish Times last week, Mr Hain said: "Any taking forward of restorative justice has two cardinal principles underpinning it. One, it's got to be agreed with the police. The other, it has to be in line with the rule of law. There is no compromise on those points."

Despite Mr Hain's apparent assurance, however, senior SDLP sources last night expressed their concern that ministers would seek to bypass cross-party opposition by proceeding in the first instance with a limited number of "pilot schemes" subject to only "minimal regulation".

At the same time a senior member of the policing board said he did not know if the PSNI's submission and statement of concerns was as comprehensive as that of the board.

The board says it believes CBRJ schemes could have a role to play in dealing with activities of concern to local communities in the North. In its submission to Mr Hanson, it says it is essential for any guidelines developed in relation to such schemes "to clarify what is meant by low-level crime", in order that all involved should "understand the parameters of CBRJ".

However, the board rejects "the rationale" apparently underpinning the Draft Guidelines, which it says "appears to be that, as at present there is nothing to stop people setting up schemes, then surely it is better to have them regulated than not regulated".

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