CRJ: a private deal, but is it legal?

It lseems that British Government plans to approve the running of CRJ under official auspices are running into deeper water. One Ulster Unionist insider told Slugger that the key question should not be whether CRJ should be funded or not, but whether its activities were actually legal. Former Taoiseach Garrett FitzGerald lays some heavy charges at the door of CRJ:The introductory paragraph is worth quoting in full:

Several years ago, Sinn Féin established “Community Restorative Justice” (CRJ). Its director of training, Harry Maguire, is one of the convicted murderers of two British army corporals at the time of an IRA funeral. Recently, having witnessed the beating of a nationalist, Jeff Commander, by a bunch of republican thugs, he failed to give evidence of this attack to the police in accordance with his duty under Northern Ireland law, writes Garret FitzGerald

To begin with he quotes from the Catriona Ruane article in the Mourne Observer (not online, but Eddie McGrady has a chunk of it here)

Several nationalist families have reported that CRJ members have been involved with the IRA in attempts to intimidate family members into leaving Northern Ireland. Moreover, Eileen Calder, of the Rape Crisis Centre, has stated that the CRJ has “threatened women and attempted to cover up crimes committed by those with IRA, Sinn Féin or CRJ connections. Allowing such people power is like letting the lunatics run the asylum.”

He also notes from the same time that:

Marie Brown, of Foyle Women’s Aid, says CRJ has stated that it would refer cases to her organisation only if it agreed not to involve the police. Finally, the McCartney sisters have told MPS at Westminster that people associated with the murder of their brother are involved in CRJ schemes and that the CRJ is a paramilitary front, used to intimidate the local population and to protect criminals with an IRA background.

According to FitzGerald, in preparing the original guidelines, the British government only consulted CRJ Ireland and Northern Ireland Alternatives. He claims that no other stakeholders were asked:

Then, when the draft guidelines deriving from this carefully-skewed process were issued last December 5th, they were found to have omitted any provision for regulation of these committees or for an independent complaints procedure. Specific provision was also made to exempt local CRJ groups from working with the police, by providing that they could choose instead to deal with the Probation Board for Northern Ireland or the Youth Justice Agency. When the PSNI raised this with the Northern Ireland Office, they were effectively told not to object to these proposed arrangements.

On the three main changes to the latest British proposals:

– There is a requirement on CRJ to notify “a dedicated police [officer] all such information on the matter as the PSNI may require”. But there is no requirement to work with them.

– “An independent, external, complaints procedure” will be provided by the Probation Board, an official government body, but not a statutary body. That is, unlike the Police Ombudsman which has unprecidented powers to investigate the PSNI, it will have absolutely no teeth

– The vetting procedure will not allow anyone convicted of terrorist offences after April 1998 to take up a position with CRJ. Anyone convicted before that date will, as will any ordinary criminal three years afterwards. This, FitzGerald believes, will “enable local IRA activists to continue in a new guise their past intimidation of local communities, whose leaders are currently afraid to speak out against what the British government is now seeking to impose on their areas”.

He concludes that the proposed guidelines are the result of a private deal that “Tony Blair did with Provisional Sinn Féin”.

But the loose nature of the legislation holds some dangers for the CRJ itself. Even if the Ruane statement was ‘a moment of madness’, the near complete absence of public oversight over its activities, compared to the draconian nature of the Police Ombudsman’s brief over the PSNI must have implications for the longer term credibility of the CRJ itself. And it raises the question of its fulnerabilty to human rights legislation.

Finally he puts this move in a ‘human rights’ context of Northern Ireland’s turbulent history:

For 35 years Irish governments have never hesitated to defend the rights of Northern nationalists from abuses – whether by unionist politicians or repressive state actions, or by IRA or loyalist paramilitaries. If, as the unacceptable terms of this revised protocol now suggest, our Government’s private representations on this matter have failed, its duty is to make it clear publicly that the installation of what is effectively a Sinn Féin policing structure in nationalist areas of the North.