In Dun Laoghaire the problem is with ‘these people’ who many feel should be moved on, moved elsewhere and generally encouraged to go away.
In Roscrea, the problem is with ‘our people’ – especially young people, and how they can be kept safe from the dangers of serious drug addiction.
I attended two public meetings this week that dealt with the issue of drug abuse – one in my hometown of Roscrea, and the other in my newly adopted home of Dun Laoghaire. The latter has been dealing with a drug problem for over 20 years – the former is just beginning to deal with the effects of widespread heroin availability.
In Roscrea, there is anger, sorrow and empathy over the tragic loss of life that has taken place recently due to drugs. In Dun Laoghaire, local businesses want to move on – or limit the work of – the local treatment clinic that treats drug addicts.
Why do two communities take views on drugs that are almost polar opposites? The reason is time.
What had happened in Roscrea was that a young man committed suicide because he owed a dealer money. It was €900. He came from a family that has been in Roscrea for generations – a family known to everyone as honest, decent, hard-working people.
He left two notes – one to his mother to say goodbye, and another explaining how he owed this money and he feared that his legs would be broken. He decided he was better dead than a cripple. And he named the people to whom he owed money.
Now, there isn’t a person in Roscrea who wouldn’t fund-raise and contribute and do whatever was needed if €900 could have bought that young man’s life. He was not ‘socially deprived’, neither did he come from a bad home. He was one of us, someone we knew, and someone we knew in the context of knowing everyone connected to him. He was a person like us, one of us.
But €900, if he had it, wouldn’t have made any difference. Because ultimately, if he was an addict, he was going to need more drugs, and going to need more money.
Let’s be clear. Heroin is not just a premature death sentence. It’s also a life sentence. The hardened addict doesn’t quit. Addiction doctors know the relapse rate for heroin addicts who want to quit is 95%. They don’t take methadone as an aid to quitting, they take methadone to normalise their lives. They take methadone so they don’t have to rob, cheat or defraud people to get heroin, though obviously some will continue to do so.
The very few – those perhaps who haven’t been addicts long or with massive willpower – may beat it in the end, but it’s very rare. Once you start pumping such a powerful sedative into your body, it’s almost impossible to do without it after a while. Methadone makes it possible to be off heroin, but it doesn’t mean you will become ‘clean’ necessarily.
But there are no treatment centres in Roscrea, and treatment places are very hard to get outside Dublin. Roscrea’s ‘scourge’ is repeated in villages and towns right across rural Ireland, but still there are no adequate treatment facilities outside the capital.
The following night I attended a public meeting in Dun Laoghaire, near where I now live, where the local ratepayers and businesspeople were trying to get their local methadone treatment centre moved from its current location on Patrick Street.
The difference in Dun Laoghaire, of course, is that drugs like heroin have been part of life there for over 20 years, and the clinic has operated since 1996. One third of the addicts being treated there have been attending the clinic since it opened (a point made in the Ratepayers’ Association Newsletter), and the addicts cause a lot of anti-social behaviour in and around the clinic which upsets the local residents and businesses.
It might seem like Nimbyism that Dun Laoghaire wants the addicts moved, but in fairness to them, they point out that addicts from all over south Dublin, and even outside Dublin, are using the clinic. They say it’s a case of reverse nimbyism – other areas won’t take their own addicts. Other areas don’t want a ‘junkie’ clinic beside them either.
We all want to think the problem is far away and won’t affect us, but it does. A man said at the Roscrea meeting to me: “The worst thing that ever happened to this town was the motorway. The dealer drops off his supply to the local smaller dealers at the bypass.”
He does. And then makes his way on to Nenagh, Moneygall, Borrisokane and Dunkerrin. For guys like that, it’s a business. But it’s not the motorway that brings drugs to small towns, it’s the fact that there’s a market there. There’s always a market.
In Roscrea, teenagers as young as 13 are offered a smoke of heroin. And some try it, and some keep trying it. And then comes the day it’s not enough. And the only way, and most economical way to use their supply is to inject it. And so begins the life sentence of addiction. Up until this point, it’s mostly free or very cheap. Drug dealers know their marketing. And they are more cynical, more devious and self-serving than any other imaginable evil.
What’s happening in Roscrea is happening all over rural Ireland. The only difference in Roscrea is that the people have had enough. Whether it makes a difference or not is another thing. Another woman said to me: “When Michael Lowry goes back to Thurles, and the Garda Superintendent goes back to Nenagh, and the RTE van goes back to Dublin, will anything have changed?”
The answer is ‘probably not’. The authorities’ response to heroin addiction in Ireland has been poor to date. Austerity and Garda cutbacks haven’t helped. Unemployment and a lack of facilities all feed into the problem. Education – and reaching the people who are most at risk, is spotty.
The clinics in Dublin were established when vigilantes started targeting dealers and the government was under pressure to do something – not necessarily out of human compassion and sympathy for the addicts – but because it was giving Sinn Fein activists a powerful voice in local communities.
That feeling of needing to do something as a community was very powerful at the Roscrea meeting. But the average person at that meeting has no government funds to allocate, hasn’t spent a lifetime studying and working within addiction, and is unfamiliar with exactly how toxic and deadly widespread heroin abuse can be. They are angry, but apart from demanding action, there is little they can do.
It’s important to remember that it was the provision of clinics in Dublin came from the worry the government had over the actions of the Concerned Parents Against Drugs group (CPAD) which had many Sinn Fein members. Concern for inner-city drug addicts was a secondary concern. Drug addicts don’t vote, but their parents and brothers and sisters do, and when they have a problem like heroin in their community, they are organised, committed and directed in their voting. Especially if they have a banner or group to organise themselves around. And when they over 1,000 people concerned enough to show up at a meeting, they are a movement that can’t be ignored.
Roscrea – and places like it – need treatment clinics urgently, but they also need a greater Garda focus on dealers, more education on drugs, decent leisure facilities and, of course jobs. Without those things, the drugs culture will flourish and become normalised.
Dun Laoghaire, on the other hand, has the responsibility for its own addicts, but surely not for every addict on the east coast.
The two towns are opposite sides of the same coin. In reality, every community in Ireland has an illegal drug problem. And every community is going to have to deal with it. But they can only do so if the government organises all the forces of the State to deal with the dealers and treat the addicts.
The addicts might be helpless in motivating politicians to do that, but addicts aren’t ‘these people’, they are ‘our people’. They are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and uncles and aunts and neighbours. Addiction might be a lonely and solitary thing, but fighting it is a job for a strong and united community.