As a controversial hostel for convicted criminals prepares to reopen its doors in Belfast — to the fury of residents — the authorities have insisted it is the best way to keep communities safe.
They say that more hostel accommodation is needed across Northern Ireland to help manage the risk posed by sex offenders and violent criminals.
News that Thompson House in residential north Belfast is preparing for the arrival of 19 ex-prisoners after a £2m refurbishment has reignited the tricky debate about where dangerous offenders should be housed on release.
The Belfast protest group Residents Against Sex Offenders is campaigning for all sex offenders in Northern Ireland to be removed from residential areas.
“To move paedophiles and rapists to another hostel in a residential area should never happen,” the group has said.
Residents failed in their battle to prevent the reopening of Thompson House, on the Antrim Road close to numerous schools and housing developments.
The Cavehill Antrim Road Regeneration Group (Carr) is still campaigning to stop sex offenders from being housed in the hostel.
“Sex offenders should not be housed in an area with such a high concentration of schools, creches and care homes,” Carr’s Patrick Wilson said.
Residents will be strictly monitored, with five room checks a day and drug and alcohol testing.
All residents must sign in and out. Sex offenders can’t leave the hostel during the hours children are going to and from school, and must return to the facility by 8pm.
Some offenders will only be permitted to leave the hostel with a member of staff. Any breaches of licence conditions or sex offender prevention orders are immediately reported by hostel staff and dealt with severely by the courts.
Paul Thompson of the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, one of the bodies that make up the Public Protection Arrangements Northern Ireland (PPANI), said dedicated offender accommodation provides the opportunity to better manage risk assessment plans and are a significant factor in preventing reoffending.
Colin Reid, of the NSPCC, who is on the PPANI’s victims’ sub group, said he believes hostel accommodation plays a “fundamental part in public protection and child protection”.
Mr Reid added: “At times it is important that those who have offended can access structured accommodation.
“This may be about providing a period of assessment before returning to the community or as part of a structured plan to manage risk and can include attendance at treatment programmes.”
Thompson House, one of three dedicated offender hostels in Northern Ireland — all based in Belfast — was established 30 years ago by the Presbyterian Church. The facility was shut last year for refurbishment, but is due to reopen within weeks.
It has been attacked with a pipebomb, bombarded with bricks and splattered with paint. Local residents are unhappy with its location, near to several schools and nurseries. The accommodation will house 19 offenders in 15 single rooms and four self-contained flats.