An end to punishment beatings requires measures to tackle anti-social behaviour


There has been an intense focus over recent days on the issue of punishment beatings in both nationalist and unionist areas. It is obvious that this issue is being used by rejectionist unionism as another weapon to undermine the Good Friday agreement, and by the British Conservatives to score party political points at Westminster, regardless of the effect which this has on the peace process in Ireland. This focus is based on highly dubious statistics from the anti-republican lobby group FAIT.

One has to question the motives of those who protest with such indignation at punishment attacks while remaining silent on the bombing of Catholic families by loyalist death squads or the mass intimidation of the Garvaghy Road community by supporters of the Orange Order.

Those who have recently expressed such interest on the issue have done so out of narrow self-interest, rather than as a result of real concern for the victims of anti-social behaviour or punishment beatings.

Punishment beatings are undoubtedly a real issue, as are the levels of anti-social activity and the existence of a policing vacuum in nationalist areas. Sinn Fein is concerned at the existence of this form of community justice and has been working on the ground to develop alternative approaches which will make punishment attacks a thing of the past. Our approach is in stark contrast to the opportunistic propagandising which we have witnessed recently.

In trying to develop alternatives, we have worked with community groups, respected academics and statutory organisations.

Punishment beatings exist for two main reasons: the absence of an adequate policing service and the rising levels of anti-social behaviour and petty crime.

The RUC is not a normal policing service. It has no credibility in nationalist areas. In some cases it has ignored anti-social behaviour as part of a policy of demoralising these communities; in others it has employed anti-social elements as informers in return for immunity from prosecution. This has allowed anti-social activity to escalate.

So called "joyriding", drug dealing, child sexual abuse and violent attacks are a reality. The absence of proper and credible policing has led local communities to address these activities in their own, and often quite brutal, ways.

Sinn Fein is totally opposed to punishment attacks. We are working on the ground to prevent this type of rough justice by providing effective alternatives for communities who are tormented by the activities of petty criminals and car thieves. In this we are frequently out of step with local opinion and the popular demand for direct action against criminals and anti-social elements.

Those of us who genuinely want punishment beatings to end are engaged in the development of real alternatives. After two years of consultation and investigation, projects are being piloted in Belfast and Derry based on the concept of Community Restorative Justice. Bringing together the relevant statutory organisations, political parties, community groups and interested residents, they can provide a viable approach to the problems involved.

Ending punishment beatings means putting in place mechanisms for responding to anti-social behaviour. Community Restorative Justice does just that. It is a non-violent, community-based response.

It recognises that punishment, violent or otherwise, often does little for the victims of crime and further alienates the perpetrators by pushing them back into reoffending.

This approach accepts that antisocial behaviour is best understood as a breakdown in community relationships. Long-term solutions require that those relationships be rebuilt. The causes of crime need to be addressed. Perpetrators need to be reintegrated into the community, not further alienated.

The four pilot projects currently operating are developing mechanisms aimed at reducing crime, reducing the social and economic factors which lead to crime, reintegrating the perpetrator into the community and adequately responding to victims' needs.

All those who are interested in ending punishment attacks, all those interested in reducing petty crime and eliminating the causes of crime, should support Community Restorative Justice projects. They require party political support, community and statutory backing, the support of local communities and, crucially, adequate resources and financial backing from government.

If those who are currently so vocal on this issue are genuinely concerned for the victims of punishment attacks, or the victims of petty criminals, they would, and should, support the developing and resourcing of viable alternatives.

Yet this radical approach of non-violently dealing with crime in the community must be seen as complementary to a proper policing service. Sinn Fein put forward constructive proposals to the Commission on Policing, headed by Chris Patten. We seek an unarmed, accountable police service which can draw support from the nationalist community and which nationalists can join as well as unionists. This is the only way forward. It is the only way to bring an end to the rough justice currently dealt out to those who engage in antisocial activities.