One of NIACRO’s projects that began in the early 1990s, Base 2, helps those under threat of violence from armed groups and maintains contact with the groups to establish the actual level of threat to individuals. The project offers a verification and mediation service to help individuals remain within their homes, or gives practical support for safe relocation out of the area. The association therefore had a reasonable level of credibility with armed groups by the mid-1990s, yet also had positive links with government agencies and officials who had accepted, for example, that Base 2 had to negotiate confidentially with armed groups in order to minimise violence.
In 1996, as a way to reach out to loyalist groups, NIACRO recruited an ex-life sentence prisoner to consult with community activists and armed groups in loyalist areas on an acceptable community alternative to punishment violence. There was no direct engagement between NIACRO staff and the armed groups. A report outlining the outcome of the consultations proposed all the relevant elements of restorative justice, even though the term was not in wide use in Northern Ireland at that time. This process eventually led to the establishment of a restorative justice movement called “Alternatives” in communities affected by loyalist paramilitary violence.
Engagement with the republican movement was more challenging. An initial attempt in 1996 came to nothing – possibly because the republican movement was unwilling to cooperate on a sensitive issue with an initiative that had not originated within its own ranks. However, shortly after this, members of the republican movement initiated contact with individual NIACRO staff members through a trusted intermediary – an employee of NIACRO who was an ex‑combatant and state torture victim. This resulted in direct dialogue between civil society activists and republicans involved in “policing” and punishment violence; senior members of the movement were kept informed.
This dialogue involved discussion on the “spectrum of legitimacy” (the extent to which elements of due process and proportionality affected the legitimacy of informal punishment) and training in human rights and the principles of restorative justice. It also shared comparative lessons from other contexts – aboriginal populations in Australia and the transitional process in South Africa.
The engagement with the republican movement was seen to be more politically sensitive and was not an official NIACRO project. It involved four civil society activists who had all been employed by NIACRO, but at this stage one was an academic and one worked for a human rights NGO. There was no formal negotiation with the republican movement about who should be involved, but those who decided to participate were known and trusted by the republican communities from their previous work.
Acceptability did not mean sympathy with the aims or tactics of the movement, but that the movement had reasonable confidence that information from the meetings would not be passed to the authorities and that the encounters would not be used in a politically negative way. Sectarian identity was not necessarily an issue, and the work histories of the individuals involved overcame any hostility. Although the individuals benefitted from the respect NIACRO had built up with the republican movement, particularly from the Base 2 project, in the end it was individual trust that counted.
A series of weekly meetings took place in areas and premises where republican activists felt safe and on home ground; this culminated in a weekend residential. After a six-month silence, a report detailing the discussions and a framework for future work was accepted by the republican movement and published. Practical work to establish an organisation that could deliver restorative practices began, but was fiercely opposed by the government and the leadership of the then RUC, although it was supported by mid-level police officers on the ground.