Tim Chapman is a lecturer in Restorative Practices at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland. He is also a former Assistant Chief Probation Officer.
As a part of the ALTERNATIVE project, Tim is delivering training at the university to community workers, some of them former members of armed groups, with a very hands-on approach and a lot of personal field training.
No more guns and bombs
“The community workers are responding very well to the training. They are confronted with hate crimes and sectarian violence, between Protestants and Catholics. These crimes are petty, though. They no longer involve guns and bombs, they consist more of throwing stones and paint bombs.”
At the present, there are four groups taking courses on implementing restorative justice. “The aim of restorative justice is to get people to talk, to communicate with each other instead of using violence”, says Tim.
“We are trying to move people away from the idea that fighting is a way to deal with conflict. We also want to move away from the idea that only a police presence will help handle a conflict, the so-called securitization of the state.”
“The Northern Irish police are, none the less, very skilled at this securitization. Usually during the summer, there are a lot of riots, but this has been a very quiet summer. They are handling the situation strategically. The problem with this kind of reaction however is that is does not solve the problem. It merely contains it, puts a lid on it. Every year, new strategies will have to be invented. Some will work better than others, but none will solve the underlying issues.”
According to Tim, dialogue and face to face meetings are more effective. It makes the problem a more personal one so that specific incidents can be solved.
Learn to listen
Tim does not think Northern Ireland will go back to its former, violent days: “The political settlements are holding Northern Ireland together. Enemies are serving together in the government. Even though some cracks are beginning to show, only a small minority wants to go back to the violence. Life is better without it. People in the community are committed to peace and resolving conflict.”
The ALTERNATIVE project aims to work on a micro level as well as on a macro level: “On a micro level, the most important part of what I do is to develop and share very specific skills to implement a restorative process. It is great to work in the field and learn to listen to people who are saying they are stressed, angry and hurt. In the Master’s course, the community workers really get specific tools to work with people, to listen.”
“On a macro level, it has become obvious that the restorative practices have been heavily influenced by the ALTERNATIVE project. A whole module in the master’s course has been based on findings from the project.”
A potentially violent situation
Because the university’s approach is so hands-on, they hear and see a lot of things that happen in the field. “One of the latest stories I have heard”, Tim says, “will stay with me for a while. It came from a student, somebody from East-Belfast we trained last year. East-Belfast has been dealing with several conflicts, between Catholics and Protestants, but also between the local citizens and foreign immigrants. He was telling me about two neighbors, one local citizen and one immigrant from Eastern Europe.”
“There was a conflict going on between the two and it was beginning to take on racist proportions, it was starting to escalate to an ethnic issue and a potentially violent situation. The guy got all of the neighbors together, the locals as well as the people from the Eastern European community to talk it through. They needed to have a conversation about how they could live together.”
“In the end, the locals invited the Eastern Europeans to a local festival. The Eastern Europeans brought food for the barbeque and they talked it out. This is an example of how to keep things on a personal level and not bring it up to a political level. This was a situation that could have easily been used by certain political organizations, to further their agenda. Yet it remained very personal and answered the questions of how local people can welcome immigrants and what ‘strangers’ can do to fit in and connect with the locals.”
“It was all about communication. It was definitely better than bringing in the police or using force. The locals had ganged up on the Eastern Europeans and had started to write racist slogans on their walls. The restorative practices, however, worked through this and resolved the issue through talking. It was great to see this guy, a working class local, come in, take the course and then solve the problem.”
Riots and chaos
Not everyone is as pleased with certain organizations that are taking the courses: “Some of these organizations that are trying to build peace had in the past been armed groups”, Tim says. “This makes authorities suspicious, but we know that these groups are non-violent and we will do our best to try and convince others of this.”
Other problems have surfaced as well: “The university courses are mostly aimed at working class organizations, but these courses are expensive and the university is rather inflexible about its fees.”
“Northern Irish politics have come to disrupt situations as well. Last year, there was a huge dispute about which flags should be hung at city hall. For six months, there were riots and chaos. It distracted the organizations who were trying to keep the peace. They were doing crisis management instead of development work. Fortunately, things have calmed down.”
Leave something sustainable
“We often see this in political crisis, people retreat to their own sides, they go back to ‘us against them’. It is necessary to try and take down these barriers. Each party retreating to their own corner goes against what ALTERNATIVE stands for.”
In the beginning of 2016, the ALTERNATIVE project will come to an end. “The goal, for me, is to take the academic research and go even further, to leave something sustainable after the project is over.”