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Methodists work for restorative justice in Northern Ireland

10/20/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

For related coverage, see UMNS stories #497 and #499.

By Kathleen LaCamera*

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (UMNS) - Methodists are backing a new restorative justice program that helps young people face the real consequences of their antisocial behavior.

In the past, East Belfast teenagers caught stealing from a local store might get a beating or worse from local paramilitaries. It has been the paramilitaries, rather than the police, that this working class community has counted on to make things right when "young lads" get caught shoplifting, vandalizing a car or even making too much noise late at night.

The new project, called East Belfast Alternatives, opened its doors in October and offers a different way of dealing with children and teens who commit crimes. It also aims to prevent them from getting into trouble in the first place.

Linda Armitage, a United Methodist Board of Global Ministries-funded missionary, is part of the project's management team, which includes police, probation officers, churches, educators, paramilitaries and social service representatives.

"Everyone has had to work together. It's taken four years to get East Belfast Alternatives opened," Armitage explains.

She and her team at the East Belfast Mission run a youth club called "Luk4," in a former paramilitary pub. Through Luk4, they take on some of the preventive work key to the restorative justice initiative. That work includes organizing trips, working in small groups and extending outreach to area families, something the mission already does as part of its ongoing pastoral care.

"You can imagine what it's like for the parents of these children," Armitage explains. "A lot of them are single mothers who don't know what to do. We want to be involved in supporting the families, victims and the offenders."

Young people are referred to East Belfast Alternatives by social service agencies, the police and others. Working with specially trained counselors and mediators, offenders face the consequences of their actions and may meet the victims of their crimes.

Performing community service is part of the restoration process. A similar restorative justice initiative in the Skankill Road area of north Belfast reports as few as 2 percent of young people involved in the program re-offend.

"People here have demanded instant justice," explains Jim McKennley, who manages East Belfast Alternatives. A former paramilitary member himself who did prison time, McKennley says people now see paramilitarism is not the answer either in resolving problems between Catholics and Protestants, or within those groups.

"In conjunction with the peace process, we have to find nonviolent ways of dealing with all conflict," McKennley says. "And that means, in the wider sense, within our communities as well."

Armitage says children as young as 8 years old have benefited from restorative justice efforts. In one example, she explains how a teenager who kept stealing from a local store came to understand he was actually taking away the store owner's livelihood.
"The boy had to go back and clear out the backyard of the shop, which was a bit humiliating, but in the process he got to know the shopkeeper," Armitage recounts. "Trust built up, and the boy eventually got a job in the shop."

Not only has crime fallen dramatically in areas where similar restorative justice programs are in place, but real reconciliation has occurred, she says.

"Many people's lives have been restored," Armitage says. "The church should be involved with this."

More information is available at www.ebm.org.uk.

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*LaCamera is a United Methodist News Service correspondent based in England.

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