The chair of a Dublin drugs task force, in one of the most drugs-ravaged parts of the State, has described the Department of Health’s move to suspend it as “bullying”.
Dr Joe Barry, chair of the North Inner City Drugs and Alcohol Task Force, and also professor in public health medicine at Trinity College Dublin, said the instruction from the department, in a letter last month, came after the task force informed it of its plans to appoint a new chair.
He says the department “didn’t want” the person taking up the position.
Dr Barry, who has chaired the body for a decade, informed the department in February the task force intended to appoint Anna Quigley, the co-ordinator of the Citywide organisation – an umbrella body for communities affected by the drug crisis.
In a letter to the task force, dated June 24th, the department raised concerns about Ms Quigley's "independence". It says: "In particular, this letter addresses the proposed appointment of a chairperson to the task force, which is not in accordance with the task force handbook and the process agreed directly with the Department of Health. "
The department “will put in place a process to appoint an independent chairperson and to broaden the membership of the task force to include all stakeholders, including elected public representatives”, it states.
“Members of the reconstituted task force will be required to sign a code of governance based on the charities regulator code.” Until then “the activities of the task force should be temporarily suspended”, states the letter.
Dr Barry, however, says the selection of Ms Quigley was “in complete compliance with the task force handbook” and the taskforce would now seek legal advice.
“We have a meeting next week. We will still meet though the letter said we are suspended. So we will get legal advice – we have no option.”
Ms Quigley, who has worked with communities worst-affected by drugs for 30 years, has been an at times outspoken critic of drug policy and advocates for drug decriminalisation. She would not comment when contacted by The Irish Times.
Dr Barry said he had been in contact with a civil servant in the department since February. “I eventually got it out of the guy in the department that they didn’t want Anna.
‘Crisis of drugs’
“It’s wrong and it’s bullying behaviour and the best thing to do to a bully is stand up to them,” he said. “This has been going on since February and there’s a crisis of drugs in the north inner city. Instead of arguing about this, we should be getting on with our work. This selection process was done properly. Appoint her.”
Labour Party Senator in the north inner city Marie Sherlock has written to Minister of State at the Department of Health with Responsibility for Drugs Frank Feighan expressing her "deep concern" at the department's "role in the suspension of" the task force.
She says “there are serious questions as to the legal basis under which the department has intervened in this way”. She is concerned this move to intervene in the community-led approach of task forces may be repeated across the network.
Echoing her comments, Dr Barry said: “I’m of a fairly moderate temperament but this, this shouldn’t be allowed happen. What they are trying is to have task forces around the country with very little community input and we are the pilot for that. They basically want to abolish the whole thing.”
The Department of Health did not respond to a request from The Irish Times for comment.