Olwen Lyner: doing the right things, for the right people, for the right reasons

10 Sep 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 10 Sep 2021

One of Northern Ireland’s most highly respected and influential Third Sector leaders announced her retirement this week.

Olwen Lyner, chief executive of NIACRO has told colleagues that she will leave her post once a successor has been appointed.

She has been speaking to Scope about her 44 year career working to reduce crime and the impact that it has on people and communities.

When Olwen joined NIACRO in 1978 straight out of university, it had a staff of six. Today there are 130 on the payroll – an impressive number by any standards, but one dwarfed by the many individuals and families who have managed to turn their lives around thanks to its work.

She studied English at university – which seems an unorthodox route into the world of criminal justice and working with marginalised offenders, but for her this was not an unnatural progression.

She said: “The attraction for me was grounded in a sense of social justice. And at university I was interested in issues to do with poverty and how people reflect that in literature.”

Her first job was to set up after-school projects for youngsters in “hot-spot” areas where there was nothing for young people to do.

“This was fairly standard youth work – an empowering and development programme which relied on volunteers. Most of the kids were boys and young men, and most of the activities were sports-related.”

At the time NIACRO services were still in an early phase of development: there were visiting services for Magilligan, and Crumlin Road prisons, and what was called the Landladies Scheme – whereby people with convictions were offered private rental accommodation, typically when their families refused to let them home after their release from prison.

In the late 1970s the conflict was still at its height – the prison population peaked the year Olwen joined NIACRO, and the republican blanket protest was also underway. Whilst this had a significant impact on the overall environment, both in prisons and wider society, NIACRO did not work with convicted combatants.

She said: “People going through the system for politically motivated offences wouldn’t have wanted much to do with us – if they had wanted our services we would have provided them, but they did not want anything to do with an organisation named NIACRO.”

Please note that until 2015 NIACRO was an acronym for Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, since then NIACRO is its name and is not short for anything.

Olwen’s early days at NIACRO also introduced her to the frustrations of so many in the sector – not having the budget and resources to address pressing need.

The approach that NIACRO took, which has become a hallmark of the organisation ever since, was to conduct research, compile the evidence and then make the case for funding.

So research was carried out into how many young people on probation had experience of youth training or work itself. The answer was stark: less than 10%

The evidence was sufficient to persuade the then Department of Manpower Services to establish schemes across Northern Ireland. She said: “That began a focus on issues for the employment and training of young people with records, and then adults.”

“I was always very engaged in practical policy work - a mixture of listening to what was happening and showcasing positive service delivery to help people get through whatever they were going through at the time.”

So based on this approach, what makes a difference to people turning up at the front door seeking NIACRO’s help?

“Initially it is nearly always practical. Have they got the benefits they are entitled to? If not have they got the ID they will need to claim them? Do they have a GP? And do they have stable accommodation?

“All these things need to be in place if we are going to help them make better choices in their lives. The prize for them is to get into employment, or training or personal development but that’s not likely unless the basics are in place.”

Families matter too. She added: “Having good relationships with family and social support is  important to help them face into the difficulties they will encounter in reintegrating into society.

“Sometimes families don’t want to stay in contact, but if someone has a stake in them it really helps.”

But it is so much better if it is possible to intervene before people even come into contact with the Criminal Justice system, with all the damage that does to their lives and others. That means providing support to families that are in distress and to children who are experiencing trauma.

This is especially important given the distressing number of prisoners – more than 50% - who suffer from mental ill health.

Olwen says: “ The reality is that very many people currently in prison would not be there at all if services were in place.”

And she agrees that there are moral implications to punishing people who are ill. “It is horrendous, as is the fact that we don’t have anywhere in Northern Ireland for those who are seriously ill either.”

More generally, are those who commit offences bad people?

Olwen’s answer is a firm no.

“They are people with very poor life choices – and this often goes back to their very early days.

“ Most of this comes down to choices. If people have the opportunity for different choices, better choices they will make those choices.”

 “For example we know that if your father has been through the criminal justice system and you’re a boy the chances of you going through the criminal justice system are around 66% . That’s why it is important that early intervention is offered to all families in stress”

Many problems and challenges remain for NIACRO in the years ahead but Olwen has much to be proud of. “We’ve mapped ourselves well against the environment over the past 50 years. We’re a different organisation, working a different set of arrangements but we have sustained relationships, avoided mission drift and have a history of being able to demonstrate impact on a personal level and also on change. We’ve been a critical friend in the reform process and I think we’re in a better place now, with more engagement between the third sector and statutory agencies.”

The organisation has grown but for Olwen that’s not a cause for celebration per se. “For us it is about impact and whether what we do is meaningful – doing the right things for the right people for the right reasons – that’s success.”

It’s not been an easy ride. Over the years NIACRO, like so many others in the sector, has had to cope with the constant stress of bringing in the funds to sustain vital services, and periods of shortfalls.

Yet Olwen has witnessed positive change. The prison service, for example, which during the conflict was focused on containment is now more supportive of prisoners.

She said: “Prisons have opened their doors – not to let people out but to let others in – so the South Eastern Trust now looks after health and the Belfast Met education. This all helps prison staff have a more meaningful role.

Attitudes are shifting too. She says there is now a better understanding of NIACRO’s work both in the Third Sector and among other partners in the criminal justice system. “There is no sense of hostility to our services, we are very well received.”

Media relations have also strengthened, although there is still the occasional attack from tabloid newspapers, which cause distress to both clients and staff.

It is not easy to do good work and be vilified for it. It requires strength and courage. Olwen has plenty of both – and many thousands of people have good reason to be grateful for her extraordinary contribution over 44 years of service.

Olwen will leave NIACRO as fired up as she ever has been. She joined the organisation because of her concerns around social justice and poverty. All these years later her idealism is undimmed.

She will continue both as chair of NICVA and as trustee of the think tank Pivotal.




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