Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my great pleasure to be here today to address this distinguished gathering of people who have come from all over the island of Ireland to discuss and explore restorative thinking, practice and developments. In this, Restorative Justice Week, it is particularly apt that I, together with Minister Ford, have the opportunity to address you and open what I know will be an interesting and productive conference.

As many of you know, Restorative Justice is a system of criminal justice focusing on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. It uses processes that bring those harmed by crime or conflict, and those responsible for the harm, into communication, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing that harm and finding a positive way forward.

Restorative Justice is an evolving concept world wide that has given rise to different interpretations and one around which there is not always perfect consensus. For our purposes in the South of Ireland the definition arrived at by the National Commission on Restorative Justice provides the basis for the development of this form of criminal justice. This definition states that:

"Restorative Justice is a victim sensitive response to criminal offending, which, through engagement with those affected by crime, aims to make amends for the harm that is caused to victims and communities and which facilitates offender rehabilitation and integration into society."

I know that restorative justice practices in Northern Ireland are well established, having been formally developed between 1995 and 2004. I understand that flexibility of practice is perceived by Northern practitioners as the best manner by which to achieve the aims of restorative justice which are; to reflect best practice; that victimisation does not occur and that all parties, victim, offender and community come away as satisfied as possible with the outcome.

Having examined your conference programme today I note that the aspects of restorative justice I have just mentioned are well covered by the various themes of the workshops. The range of workshops is impressive and I am pleased to see the emphasis on structured networking and forward planning.

I am particularly interested to note that restorative practice in prisons is a topic for discussion. The subject of today’s conference is usually associated with work in the community. Indeed, the provision of restorative practices is a priority for the Irish Probation Service. The restorative principles of admitting to and repairing the harm done to the victim and to society by offending behaviour are central to the already familiar practice of Community Service which they deliver so well. However, the introduction of the Community Return programme in October 2011 is bringing this restorative possibility to the prisoner population and to their communities in terms of providing payback for the harm done.

Community Return is a reparative model requiring offenders to address the indirect harm to the community caused by their offending by performing unpaid supervised work benefiting the community they have harmed. Through the scheme, prisoners who have already served a custodial sentence now have the structure and opportunities to engage in restorative practices and avail of the rehabilitative effect of repairing some of the harm they have done and reintegrate into society.

In working with adult offenders, I believe restorative justice has the potential to break the destructive pattern of behaviours of those who offend by challenging them to confront the full extent of the harm and the emotional and physical impact caused to their victims. As a way of responding to offending behaviour it balances the needs of the victim, the offender and the community by affording a real and meaningful opportunity to engage in a process where the victim’s perspective is considered and represented. Within the juvenile justice system the principles of restorative justice are well established with the provisions of the 2001 Children Act introducing measures that have as their key objective the diversion of children from court, conviction and custody.

The Probation Service recognises and has demonstrated the value and benefit of engaging in the practice of Restorative Justice to complement and enhance existing community sanctions within the Criminal Justice system. In the report of the National Commission on Restorative Justice, which I mentioned earlier, existing approaches were validated and areas for expansion were identified. The implementation of the report’s recommendations required the Probation Service to initiate a pilot expansion of the existing restorative justice projects. The evaluation report on the pilot highlighted the increased engagement of the Judiciary with restorative justice which resulted in increased referral rates and the wider use of Restorative Justice beyond diversion.

I am pleased to be able to say that they have this week published their Restorative Justice Strategy, which they have titled "Repairing the harm: A Victim Sensitive Response to Offending" . This strategy provides a framework within which agreed high level goals will be implemented.

These goals include:

· The wider discretionary application of Restorative Justice Models with a range of offenders

· The promotion and delivery of Restorative Conferences both in a diversionary context and as an intervention in the management and supervision of offenders.

· The strengthening of direct services to victims which will include not just the provision of information on the Probation Service but a capacity to respond effectively to requests for Victim/Offender Mediation from the Courts or directly from victims.

· The provision of targeted training to strengthen the Restorative Practice culture.

The strategy is intended to include actions that will facilitate expanding and strengthening the capacity to ensure the provision of high quality restorative justice projects and services. The strategy also provides for the greater use of restorative practices in the overall assessment and supervision of offenders referred to the Probation Service and partner agencies.

In order to do all this it is understood that there will be an increased role for community members and volunteers. The Probation Service currently works with and within communities to provide services to offenders. Despite our difficult economic circumstances and ever increasing pressure on limited resources I have been able to ensure that a large proportion of the Probation budget is available to fund community based organisations dedicated to the delivery of those services that help them in achieve their strategic objectives.

I share the intention of the Probation Service to ensure that the quality of service provided by restorative justice interventions is consistently high and work to agreed restorative practice standards. In all of its interventions, the Probation Service will provide for more inclusive victim sensitive services thereby extending the reach of restorative methods.

Minister Ford and I were both at another event last week in Hillsborough Castle which highlights the level of co-operation involved across both jurisdictions. Minister Ford and I opened the fourth Public Protection Advisory Group joint Probation Services seminar under the theme of "Complementary Contributions to Desistance". The public protection group provides a formal structure for the engagement of both Probation Services and a platform to strengthen engagement with all other stakeholders involved in the criminal justice systems, North and South.

As I said last week, I believe that co-operation and communication between agencies and across jurisdictions can play an important role in making communities throughout Ireland safer. Influencing offending behaviour can be successfully tackled only when the range of services an offender requires both inside and outside the criminal justice system are linked into it in an informed and cohesive way. Research supports the view that for offenders, the transition from criminality to a productive and worthwhile lifestyle is not an easy task. Individuals must often make the difficult decision to separate themselves from existing social networks, roles and environments. They must leave behind established lifestyle choices and entrenched cognitive and behavioural patterns and discover a new way of being. Today you will explore how the practice of restorative justice as a criminal justice response lends itself to the practice of desistance among those who can all too easily develop the practice of offending.

We all face the same challenges on this island in combating crime, in managing offenders and supporting victims. By working together, we can be more productive in tackling them. Today’s conference is a perfect example of this, drawing together as it does the statutory, voluntary and community responses to both offenders and victims in a forum which provides the opportunity to share experience and develop future practices and well as the possibilities to network and make professional connections.

I am confident that this conference will make a significant contribution to expanding our understanding of restorative practice and to enhancing the skills of those engaged in its day to day application. I wish you well in this endeavour and extend my thanks to those who are responsible for organising the conference and making the event happen.