It was in 2014 that playwright and documentary maker Geoff Power read the article that inspired his new play, Stronger.
The article was about a woman in the UK who had been raped. Finding no closure through the courts, she had decided to meet with her attacker.
The survivor was advocating for the value of the restorative justice approach, a process whereby a professional facilitates communication between the victim and the offender, whether in writing or in person.
Reading the article, Power imagined the meeting. He pictured it in a dark room, he says.
And “if well developed and well written that could be a very powerful theatrical experience”, he says he thought.
Through the organisation Restorative Justice UK, Power met with the survivor and her husband, he says. “She was incredibly impressive and very inspiring and strong.”
Years later, after many rewrites, he has finished Stronger, a play inspired by the woman’s experience, due to premiere at the Dublin Theatre Festival later this month.
(If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this article, and need help, or just to talk, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s 24-hour helpline is 1800 77 8888.)
While the woman he met inspired the play, Power dramatised the events and changed details, he says. Stronger is set in Ireland.
He twice travelled to the UK to meet the woman.
The details of the rape were shocking and extreme, he says. As is common in rape cases, she knew the offender well. She had been his teacher, he says.
The woman felt that her needs hadn’t been addressed through the court case or in the aftermath of it, he says.
The offender had been convicted and imprisoned. But that “had no impact or effect on her”, says Power. “It wasn’t helping her to move on.”
Four years after the attack she approached Restorative Justice UK, and a year after that she met with the perpetrator, he says.
The process helped. “She used to say to me that she got her life back,” says Power. “It was a cathartic experience.”
Restorative-justice meetings are only ever done at the request of the survivor, says Ursula Fernée, who runs the Restorative Justice and Victim Services Unit, within the Irish Probation Service.
They often have questions for the perpetrator, she says. “They might want to try to understand at some level.”
Expanding the Approach
Restorative justice was first used in Ireland in the late 1990s, says Fernée.
Now, Gardaí regularly use restorative-justice approaches with young offenders, especially first-time offenders, she says, and it can be successful in diverting young people away from criminality.
At first, it was rarely used in cases of sex offences, says Fernée. But recent research shows that survivors of serious crimes often say that it helped them. (Although it’s not appropriate for domestic violence cases, she says.)
“It has to be delivered in a fashion that is sensitive to victims’ needs and sensitive to victims’ safety,” she says.
“Preparation is key,” says Fernée, like making sure the environment is safe for the victim.
Separately, skilled professional staff work to prepare the offender too. If the offender is attempting to minimise the crime or not take full responsibility, the meeting won’t go ahead, she says.
Restorative justice should never be pushed on any victim, and many victims of sexual violence won’t want to consider it, Fernée says.
But for those who could benefit, the Probation Service wants them to know it’s there, she says.
The play Stronger is a way to do that, she says. “We believe that the arts is a very good way of communicating the message of restorative justice.”
Stronger by Geoff Power, produced by Gúna Nua Theatre, will run in the Smock Alley Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2021, from 30 September to 9 October.
On Thursday 7 October at 4.00 pm, Gúna Nua will host a webinar on restorative justice with speakers including Noeline Blackwell, CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.