Addresses of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and Sr Imelda Wickham at the launch of the ICJSA document Violence in Irish Society: Towards an Ecology of Peace

05 Jun 2008

5 June 2008

Addresses of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and Sr Imelda Wickham at the launch of the ICJSA document Violence in Irish Society: Towards an Ecology of Peace

Please see below the address by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, followed by the response of Sr Imelda Wickham, at the launch of the ICJSA document Violence in Irish Society: Towards and Ecology of Peace on Thursday 5th June 2008:

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin:

Many – myself included – have over the past years expressed our horror on the occasion of one or other brutal episode of violence in Irish society and indeed there have been far too many of them in the four years since I have become Archbishop of Dublin. 

In speaking on such occasions, however, I have always felt a sense of frustration at the fact that the denunciation of violence so often comes too late. It comes when a tragedy has occurred and not earlier when it might have been possible to avoid a tragedy.

The report is a document of the Irish Bishops’ Commission for Justice and Social Affairs (ICJSA) and not a document of the Bishops as such. It has the merit of drawing attention to and challenging all of us to address the problem of violence in contemporary Irish society in a more organic way than is often the case. It addresses many aspects of violence and reminds us that violence must be addressed at its roots. A response to the current culture of violence requires the building of a broad consensus within society regarding the seriousness of the situation and the urgency of the fight against violence. The point of the ICJSA document is to encourage all those who are concerned about violence in Ireland today to work more closely together.

Fortunately, levels of violence in Ireland are lower than in many other parts of Europe. But there is nothing to be complacent about. The increase in violence is sizeable and there are many troubling elements about the varied culture of violence which we have to address head-on.

Here in this Church, which is attached to the Diocesan Youth Care service, I would put in first place the problem of violence by and among young people. Violence has destroyed the lives of so many young people. I am talking about victims whose lives have been tragically taken and can never be restored to their loved ones; I am speaking also about the lives of the perpetrators. Dramatically, some of these perpetrators are barely out of their childhood and their lives will be marked for ever.

Violence among young people is linked with a curious culture of knives, carried it is said, as a possible means of self defence, but which have become symbols of being part of a culture of violence. I am pleased to see that in Britain new legislation is being introduced to address the question.

Violence among young people is linked with our dubious Irish culture of drink. Sadly it is so often the weakest among young people who pay the price for a persistent fashionable exaltation of a drinking culture.

I know from priests in many parishes how the trade in illegal drugs in Dublin is destroying lives every day in our city. Drugs are at the heart of gangland violence. Young lives are being wasted and families and communities are being ripped apart by the terrible plague of drug abuse. There can be no tolerance of this trade. We should speak in words that people can understand. The drug trade is a murky, shameful world of which no one who has any involvement – as a trader or as a consumer – can be proud. There is no way in which it can be rendered respectable. Drug use is not made respectable because it takes place in the nicer Dublin postal zones.

In every aspect of society, the law is there to protect the weakest and to curb the over confidence of the arrogant. In fighting drug-related crime, the law should be seen to be used against those who seem to feel that they are above the law, while the weakest and the most vulnerable should be protected.

But the challenges of violence and substance abuse go beyond the realm of crime prevention and require a wider outreach to the entire community. I have constantly appealed for greater community mobilisation to address the question of violence in our society. I know that there are many community organizations which have a similar view. I have spoken to community leaders, to local authority representatives, to teachers and Garda representatives in the worst-hit areas. I have listened to mother and fathers whose children have lost their lives or whose lives have been ruined.

Much good work is already being done. There is a particularly good Garda-community liaison in this area. Such work needs to be replicated around the country and experiences and knowledge widely shared.

I can only praise the courage of individuals and communities who, notwithstanding threats and intimidation, are willing to bring to the attention of the relevant authorities the information they need to act against those who seek to profit from the suffering and addictions of others and to impose their rule by violence.

There are many other forms of violence which need to be addressed. This ICJSA document addresses some of them. It challenges us as individuals and communities to compile our own lists. There is violence within families, especially against women and children. There is bullying in schools. There is the violence of money-lenders. There are worrying examples of violence against immigrants. There are serious incidents of violence against gay people. Many elderly people tell me about their fear, especially if they are living alone. I hope that the ICJSA document will be a renewed occasion to focus on these and to identify other emerging focal points of violence.

Violence in the last resort is an attempt to impose one’s own views and importance of others. In that sense it is a threat to democracy.

The ICJSA document is addressed in the first place to the Christian community. Christians must shun violence. When faced with the violence of those who, led by Judas, come to apprehend him, Jesus clearly repudiates attempts by his own to respond with violence, witnessing rather to the power of self-giving love even unto death. It was that love which then opened the path to new life, while Jesus’ proverb to those would espouse violence retains its stark validity today: “all those who take the sword will perish by the sword”. Espousing violence renders all of us less safe, especially the very ones who themselves espouse violence.

Sr Imelda Wickham:

Your Grace, Lord Bishops, Rev Sisters, Fathers, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is an honour and a privilege for me to have been invited to respond to Archbishop Martin’s inspiring and challenging address to all of us this evening on the occasion of the launch of this timely and very welcome document – “Violence in Irish Society – Towards An Ecology of Peace. Some months ago Archbishop Martin called for a summit of all in leadership positions to address the issue of violence. Today I have been asked by Bishop Field to respond in the context of my pastoral role as prison chaplain and to address, in particular, the effects of violence on prisoners, their families and the victims of crime.

In doing this I am very conscious of my limited experience. I say this not out of any false sense of humility but from a realisation of the fact that while I witness the effects of violence on all three categories of people – prisoners, their families and, to a lesser extent perhaps, the victims of crime – my experience is at best one step removed – and I say this because – having worked as prison chaplain for the past nine years a phrase that I constantly hear from the men I work with is – “Ah sure you know yourself what it is like” This is the phrase many of the men use when telling their story – very often it is a story of horrendous and harrowing facts of life – a story perhaps never revealed before – a story of abuse, addiction, violence – violence inflicted in front of them, on them and by them – at times the same person is both victim and perpetrator.

At other times it may be a story of illiteracy, of homelessness and even of total abandonment – But very often there comes a point in that story where it becomes almost impossible for some of them to find the words or to adequately give expressions to the feelings and in the struggle they will invariably say “Ah! Sure you know yourself Imelda what it is like” But, I’m not sure that I do. I can sit in the cell, I can listen, empathise and even absorb some of the pain but at the end of the day it is not my story, my experience and it is in that sense that I am aware of my limitations.

In our annual report, as prison chaplains, to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform last November we recalled the tragic and violent deaths of two young men in Mountjoy Prison – Gary Douch and Derek Glennon. We reminded the minister that the enormity of these tragedies pointed to a daily reality of violence in our prisons – a reality also noted by the EU Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhumane Treatment of Prisoners during their visit to Ireland in October 2006. The report stated and I quote –“ Stabbings & assaults are frequent” and many of the men met by the delegation bore marks of such incidents.

The effect of this violence means that a growing number of prisoners are seeking protection and many serve their sentence on almost constant lock-up. Being on lock up severely limits one’s educational or recreational activities and the whole experience of imprisonment becomes even more damaging with little prospect of rehabilitation. Can you imagine what it must be like to be locked up for 23 hours a day?

What response can we make? One element of a possible response would be smaller prisons. Research has consistently shown that smaller prisons offer a better chance of providing more humane regimes, of creating better relationships between staff and inmates and are more conducive to rehabilitation. Yet for some unknown reason we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Thornton Hall, we are told will house in the region of 1,400 people with the capacity to almost double that number if needed.

In 1985 the Whitaker Report spoke of the damaging effects of imprisonment and of the need to place a ceiling on the number of people being sent to prison. Nobody will deny that prisons are necessary. But, they should only be used as a last resort when society needs protection from the individual.

Any effort to address the experience of violence must address the causes. The causes are many and complex, This afternoon, I speak to you about what I consider to be some of the contributory causes of violence and crime.

This document speaks of violence being linked to the experience of poverty and social exclusion. The majority of those incarcerated come from areas of poverty and social exclusion. The document also calls for reflection on the ways in which the social and community infrastructure need to be transformed if violence is to be successfully tackled. This reflection, I believe, is key.

As a nation one has to ask where our priorities lie? On the one hand we can afford to pay €30M to buy a site for a prison – – and at the same tim fail to adequately invest in primary education or in primary health care? We can build prisons at enormous costs to the tax payer but are unable to tackle to housing crises – and many end of in prison simply because they are homeless. We are unable to provide psychological and psychiatric services for young children in need – yet, when these same children get into trouble the state is willing to pay in region of €100,000 a year to incarcerate them with very little thought for the effect this term of imprisonment is going to have on them. For many, as we know, it is merely the starting point for a life of crime, violence and imprisonment. This is a reality that many, even the tax payer who is funding the bill, choose to ignore. We ignore it at our peril.

I have met parents who will describe their efforts over the years to get help for their children in need. Some will describe the relief when they are imprisoned – it is a break for them and they hope that now that they are in the care of the state something may be done for them – a false hope in many cases. And again research has shown that once a child enters the criminal justice system subsequent rehabilitation services no matter how skilled have less potential for success than if they had been available at an earlier stage

Children suffering ADHD, schizophrenic teenagers or young people suffering depression are left on waiting or find shelter in adult psychiatric hospital wards and, some not all, may ultimately end up in prison cells. There seems to be no shortage of resources when it comes to incarcerating some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Can we not find solutions prior to the pattern of crime in our society and prior to incarceration?

It is not without some significance, I think, that this publication comes shortly after the publication of The Interim Report from the National Commission on Restorative Justice. As chaplains we have consistently advocated in our annual reports, that Restorative Justice be seriously examined as an alternative to imprisonment. We welcome the interim report and look forward to the inclusion of Restorative Justice as a way forward in the final report due later this year.

I speak of restorative justice because whenever I speak of crime, or violence I am always conscience of the fact that there are victims – people who have experienced – first hand the terrible effects of violence.

The document refers to the psychological scars and the deep-seated sense of insecurity that remain with the victim long after the physical effects have faded.

This needs to be acknowledged and respected. One of the major complaints of the current Criminal Justice System is in relation to its treatment of victims who often feel isolated from the whole process. Their needs are often ignored and their experiences not listened to. One way to address this would be through the process of Restorative Justice – just one way, there may be others too. But I name Restorative Justice because it is inclusive of all involved in a crime situation – the offender, the victim and the local community.

The main objectives of Restorative Justice are threefold – victim involvement – community protection and – offender accountability. One of the problems with the present system is that when the offender is incarcerated they are removed both from the support of their family and from the consequences of their crime. Restorative Justice by contrast looks beyond the individual to include victim and offender, their families and the community. At its centre is the concept that the harm done should be put right, if possible.

There is an ecological aspect to Restorative Justice that I feel finds an echo in this publication – Violence in Irish Society: Towards an Ecology of Peace. I understand ecology here to mean a pervasive attitude, a pervasive system of peace. The Old Irish Brehon Laws were based on a philosophy of restorative justice and discouraged retribution, revenge or retaliation.

Biblical Justice is based on the concept of right relationships. It looks to the future and to the rebuilding of fractured relationships. It rejects the idea that crime is only the responsibility of a few evil people in society. Violence and crime point to a crisis in the very fabric of society. There is a crisis in Irish society today and this needs to be acknowledged and embraced by local communities as called for by Archbishop Martin.

Finally, the document states and I quote –

We can live in a fear that disempowers us and prevents us from closing the gap between an acceptance of our present fractured society as inevitable and any belief that we may have in the inherent dignity of all human beings or we can move to a response beyond fear, one that involves difficult choices at societal, community and personal level. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves in non-violent strategies for resolving conflict

The complexity of the situation calls for reasoned balanced and honest dialogue as called for by Archbishop Martin. My hope is that this document will be just one contribute to this dialogue. We have been invited to take part. The choice is ours. Future generations will judge us on our response.

Thank you.


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Martin Long, Director of Communications (086 172 7678)
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