Monday, 31 May 2010

European Group Conference 2005

Just sent off my registration form for the 2010 Conference for the European Group for the study of deviance and social control.  This year its taking place in Lesvos at the University of the Aegean. I first attend the Group's Belfast Conference in 2005 and wrote the report below shortly afterwards. It was originally published on the No More Prison website and republished on their blog earlier today.

European Group Conference 2005 - A personal report

As someone angry about prisons and crime control and hungry to understand as much as possible about the criminal (in)justice system, particularly from a critical perspective I came across details of the conference of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control in Belfast in September 2005 on the internet. The conference appeared to provide space for activists rather than being exclusively restricted to academics so I decided I would attend.

Arriving at a conference where you know no one is a bit weird. Any group of people, particularly one where many individuals have known each other for decades can be intimidating. However I confronted little hostility and after breaking the ice found the group to be very welcoming. (I would advise anyone else considering going along to e-mail the respective national representative - their contact details are on the groups website before going and introduce yourself. They would hopefully get you in touch with other people going and provide initial contacts that would be helpful in the initial hours of the conference.)

My fear on arrival was that the conference would not be relevant to me. The majority (but certainly not all) of the participants either worked or studied at university. Some of the sessions had titles and descriptions that were technical and occasionally a little intimidating. But the conference was as much focused on doing as it was on ideas. Often sessions linked both.

The conference was in Belfast and the content of the conference reflected this. The opening session included a passionate speech by Geraldine Finucane detailing the struggle she and her family have waged to find out the truth of the murder of her husband Pat Finucane, a civil rights lawyer gunned down by Loyalists operating with collusion from the British Intelligence services. A number of the sessions focused on the north of Ireland and on the Saturday we had, in quick succession, a panel discussion with key actors in the peace process and the conflicts that preceded it, a tour of West Belfast hosted by former political prisoners, the screening of a film on the hunger strike followed by a discussion with those involved. The panel discussion was the most impressive presentation I have ever heard from politicians.

Margaret Ward started off explaining the experience of women in Northern Ireland and the perspective of her party, The Women's Coalition Danny Morrison set out the Republican perspective in a remarkably considered way which honestly acknowledged the impact of the troubles on his own and the loyalist/unionist community and was realistic about the limitations what could be achieved in the future. My sympathy has always been with the Republican cause and I awaited David Ervine setting out the loyalist position with distrust. I did David a grave injustice. It was quite simply the most honest and non-sectarian analysis of a situation I have ever heard from a politician. The Peace process presents a difficult and complex challenge for working class Protestants. David Ervine articulated both the psychologically and economically challenges facing his community whose position is the most precarious of any group in Northern Ireland. Unionist politicians like Ian Paisley exploit these fears for political gain but do nothing to address their underlying causes or indeed to represent the interests (economically and politically) of working class loyalists. David' party linked to the Loyalist paramilitary groups has very little electoral impact.

We then set off on a tour around Belfast. Accompanied for the first part by a republican former prisoner we soon saw why it existed as we visited Bombay Street Road. In 1969 a loyalist mob unrestrained by the then unconstructed "wall" had driven the local nationalist community from their homes, injuring many and killing Gerald McAuley, 15, before burning the houses to the ground. My impression of this side of the wall was a disciplined and proud community. High quality murals cover the end walls of terraces as well as hoardings down the Falls Road, giving out a consistent, defiant and internationalist message. The Hunger strikes are remembered alongside support for the Palestinian struggle, anti Brit propaganda alongside support for liberation struggles around the world, and support for (the now released) political prisoners alongside wonderfully cruel caricatures of George Bush.

Particularly notable was a couple of the question of racism. They include a quote from Fredrick Douglass pointing out that the Irish had as well as suffering racism shown a capacity to behave in a racist manner to others. This self-awareness and capacity to see themselves in a critical light characterised for me Northern Irish Republicanism. As we approached a gate in the wall (these can be opened and closed by the police from the safety of their own forts - I use the word "forts" as the only adequate description having seen one!) our Republican guide left the bus.

On the other side our Loyalist guide got on. This side of the wall was in many ways the same but in others dramatically different. The houses looked the same, as did the people. But instead of murals that were works of art the loyalist side had predominately graffiti. Images designed to remind the community of centuries of history were replaced by crude sectarian graffiti. Loyalist Belfast feels scared, ready to lash out, but also resigned to defeat. The Shankill Road was closed for a march of loyalist bands. Watching them marching by was a chilling sight. I asked our Guide about the lack of any visible police presence and was informed that they policed their own events. Indeed it was clear that others on both sides of the wall carried out policing in West Belfast.

Next stop was the Conway Mill community centre where we got to see H3 a film about the hunger strikes in the early 1980's when Bobby Sands MP, and nine of his comrades died in a protest at the removal of political prisoner status. I am normally good at controlling my emotions but I found this film overwhelmingly powerful. At times I was unable to watch the screen and like many others ended the film with red eyes. {Read my full review here} But before I could recover we were introduced to the films writer Lawrence McKeown, and Seanna Walsh. Lawrence McKeown had been the eleventh hunger striker, and in a coma, when the action was called off. For years IRA statements have been issued in the name of P O'Neil, but the recent announcement of the end of the armed struggle had a human face, Seanna Walsh, a former cellmate of Bobby Sands, had made it. Yet again we were involved in dialogue with major actors. Listening to their stories and their responses to challenging questions from conference participants from across Europe was a real privilege. We then had the best food of the conference, cheap wine, passionate debate, local music and a late night.

The theme of the conference was " transition" and I attending sessions covering a wide range of different themes. The format for much of the conference was three different parallel sessions. At each two or three people presented papers followed by group discussions. These sessions often tried to cram too much into to little time with the result that presentations were rushed and there was to little time for others attending to ask questions or make contributions. I attended sessions around the theme of Iraq, Imprisonment, Drugs, Food, Health and Safety and Environmental Crime, Women, and Community Attitudes to crime. All discussions are in English and this obviously presents real challenges for participants whose first language is not English. Overall the quality of the presentations was good. There was a good balance between theory and practice and many applied critical thinking that allowed me to see issues in new ways.

One issue that came up was the use of the concept of "crime" by progressives. On the one hand there was the view that "crime" is a flawed concept and we should be trying to resist and indeed role back criminalisation (e.g. drugs and minor anti social behaviour in working class communities). However others were effectively seeking to extend the definition of crime and the role of law to include war crimes, environmental crime, food crime, health and safety crime and other crimes by the powerful. Criminalisation has historically been used to regulate and control the poor, weak and marginalized. Can the same mechanism be used to protect them and control the powerful?

A second issue that came up for me was the way transition of the former communist countries into capitalist parliamentary democracies had resulted in them replicating the experiences of Western Europe over the last 30 years. Within these countries there appears to be a tendencies to conceive of for example drugs as a new phenomenon. In fact the adoption of policies in the 1990's that the UK had adopted in the 60's and 70's had resulted in the drug markets and cultures developing in identical ways. The only difference being the speed, possibly reflecting the increased speed with which globalisation is currently working.

A third issue was around human rights. This was linked to the idea of a progressive extension of the concept of crime. For example we explored the difficulty of defining "war" crimes. This is not as easy as it seems or indeed many of us would like. Using the UN as part of a definition was problematic given the veto. Israel would in all probability be protected by the US veto. Human rights were offered as a potential alternative route. This was also suggested as having potential in terms of environmental and issues of genocide. I remain unconvinced that any model like this can be effective when in essence its has to be policed by the very people who such laws would be intended to control. The winners of any war are never likely to be held to account.

I think the group should promote itself more to new people. For those of us engaged in resisting prisons or challenging a class based criminal (in)justice system or promoting alternatives to the punitive policies of most governments we need to spend time with comrades, we need it for the energy it can give us if nothing else. I found it incredibly exciting spending time with a group of people who shared my passions and whose knowledge and experience could not but help me further develop my thinking. The conference was informal, no one had titles, status was not an available tool. The European dimension really made this an event; I loved the different perspectives that people from across the continent (and at least three other continents!) were able to bring. With the communication potential of the Internet I know that I will maintain contact with many of them. The conference cost £250 (including accommodation and food) for someone waged. Its not cheap but I believe there is potential to help any activist who can not afford it and there are reduced rates for students, part time workers and the unwaged. One thing I must check up with other participants was the level of interest shown them at Belfast airport. I was subjected to a very thorough search, had my laptop taken away for further examination and myself and my bags "dabbed" for explosives. In the old Belfast this would have worried me given the hands I had shaken over recent days.

Next years conference is in Greece, I certainly intend to be there. But given the healthy rate at which the leaflets for the Prison Abolition Seminar disappeared and the interest expressed I suspect I will be seeing a number of people sooner than that.

More information about the European Group can be found on the website - here

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