Community healing circle following a gas explosion in a residential area

An Garda Síochána 

Community Healing Circle Following a Gas Explosion in a Residential Area

A gas explosion occurred on a residential street in an urban area in Ireland. When this incident occurred, a local member of An Garda Síochána requested from their superior the permission to explore whether a restorative approach to community healing was possible. The Garda member had considerable training in restorative practice and had previously facilitated many restorative conferences relating to a range of more- and less-serious offences. They envisaged that a circle process would enable those in the community who were affected to express their feelings, have these validated, and play a part in deciding how to repair the harm and make things right.

They were given permission to do this piece of work, without those responsible being present. They first met with the Community Garda for the area where this occurred. The two Gardaí then met with some ‘key people’ whom they knew on the street to talk about the possibility of a restorative meeting with any residents who would like to attend. They initially spoke with one woman who organised for them to speak with another three women who lived on the road. They put together a small leaflet outlining what would take place should anyone wish to attend. The important thing at this stage was that there was a relationship already in existence with key people on this road. The facilitating Garda built on the relationship that the Community Garda already had, and built trust with local citizens. Once they were happy that the four local women understood what would happen in the restorative meeting, the women spoke to others on the road about the prospect of such a meeting. This was crucial to getting much wider buy-in from local people, as the offer to participate was coming from individuals who they knew and trusted. 

A time, date and location for the meeting were agreed, although the facilitator could not be sure exactly how many people would attend. The Gardaí booked a conference room in a hotel close by and set the room up so that the chairs were in a circle. Some participants were given assigned seats, namely two local Garda Inspectors, the Community Garda and a representative from the gas company. The facilitating Garda also knew where the community members whom they had already met were to sit. This was important because, in a circle process, the right to speak goes around the room sequentially. As such, assigning seats to certain people in a specific order was a key part of managing the dynamic and conversation among the group. 

In the end, 20 people arrived, of whom the facilitating Garda had previously met four. The Garda considers that this was the maximum amount of people that could fit comfortably in the room and participate in the circle. The facilitating Garda welcomed everyone to the meeting and thanked them for attending. They explained how the circle process would work and asked if the participants were happy to continue. The facilitating Garda then asked the first person whom they had met to tell their story of what happened on the night of the incident. One by one, each person present then had an opportunity to tell their own story. The facilitating Garda completed this phase of the meeting with the Community Garda telling their story. Some of the traditional restorative questions were used, but the facilitator used their training to assess how the dynamic developed in the room and adapted their questioning accordingly.

There was a lot of emotion expressed in the room. Some people were very upset and worried. Others were concerned for the people who had been most closely involved in the incident. Most were worried about each other and their families. Some were offered the opportunity of coming back to them at a later point in the conversation, because they became upset when it was their turn to speak. Some active facilitation was required to ask respectfully if people who were talking for a long time were willing to give the next person an opportunity to speak. 

After all the community members had spoken, the facilitating Garda thanked everyone for their contributions. They then invited the Garda Inspectors and the engineer from the gas company to reflect by asking them for their thoughts about what was said. They gave very heart felt responses and, importantly, they acknowledged what the residents said. The facilitating Garda made a point to thank them for this acknowledgement. The facilitator then invited the group to talk about how things could be made better for everyone on the road. There was now discussion about a number of things regarding the emotional impact of the incident and how best to repair the harm. They agreed that there would be a family fun day on the street, and that the Gardaí and everyone present would support this event. The circle was brought to a close with everyone being invited to say anything that they would like to in closing. Everyone was thanked for their attendance and tea and coffee were shared by the group. The family fun day ultimately took place several weeks later, with the support of the Gardaí.

For the facilitating Garda, the lessons learned from this circle process include:

  • Communities may need and desire an opportunity for healing after major harmful events. Restorative practices may be suitable for this because they allow people to participate in discussions relating to their community.
  • There is value in identifying and working with ‘link’ people in the community (in this case, the Community Garda and the four women mentioned earlier) to help engage with others and bring others on board for the meeting to take place.
  • In such a process, the facilitator cannot predict exactly who will show up on the day, what everyone will say and how they will behave. It is possible to rely somewhat on the group to self-regulate, especially if they already all know each other (e.g. if they are neighbours). For example, ‘link’ people can be asked in advance to support the facilitator in preventing any one person from dominating the conversation. 
  • Having a chance simply to express one’s story and feelings, and to have these listened to respectfully and validated by others, can play a key role in healing and repairing harm. A significant outcome agreement is not always required. The family fun day was a bonus in this case, but the priority of the meeting was to provide an opportunity for everyone to tell their story, have it acknowledged and decide if anything else was needed to repair the harm. Community healing can take place in the absence of someone to ‘blame’. 
  • The restorative questions and circle process were effective, even though a perpetrator was not present. Facilitators require considerable training in such complex cases, as they may need to play an active role in the process, to handle a range of different personalities respectfully, and to both manage and permit people to sit with the emotion in the room.
  • Facilitators need to work through and be conscious of what phase of a meeting they are in when facilitating a circle – i.e. storytelling, acknowledgment and repair.

On this occasion, the meeting coincided with a Garda investigation into the incident. As such, Garda Detectives expressed concern about the process, namely that, if a trial occurred in relation to the incident, witness accounts may be questioned. This raises questions about the speed at which the criminal justice process takes place and how community healing might be designed so that the formal process does not act as a barrier, and vice versa.