Can we really expect Fine Gael to care?
Declaring a victory over denying people healthcare is grotesque
Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan sent a letter to her constituents, saying she had successfully intervened to prevent a ‘methadone clinic’ being developed at Ballinteer Health Centre. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
In the Leo Varadkar era of Fine Gael, one of the party and the Government’s most deep-rooted issues concerns their perceived lack of empathy. This is not just an image problem – the lens through which all troubleshooting is done in Fine Gael Land – it is a fundamental one.
Several members of the party seem to be incredibly disconnected from how people feel, and what their daily lived experiences are, and bungle away with soundbites, policies and proposals that hurt people deeply, exuding privilege and entitlement.
Last week, we encountered another one of these almost cartoonish Fine Gael moments, when the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan, sent a triumphant letter to residents in her constituency announcing that she had successfully intervened to prevent a “methadone clinic” being developed at Ballinteer Health Centre.
Madigan has form when it comes to NIMBYism, of course – the local authority land in south Dublin that was earmarked for Traveller accommodation, which she infamously campaigned against, is still lying empty. But declaring a victory over denying people healthcare is grotesque.
The term “methadone clinic” is evocative, but what it really means is that methadone is available as a treatment in a medical centre. How is it acceptable for a culture minister to lobby the Department of Health in this manner? Madigan headed up Fine Gael’s campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. What if a politician decided that abortion pills or even birth control should not be dispensed from a local medical centre? Why on earth should someone assume the authority to decide who should or shouldn’t be treated in a local medical centre, and with what medication?
As a treatment, methadone is problematic. Treating addiction shouldn’t be about substituting one drug for another. A holistic, multifaceted approach that addresses the causes of addiction along with the substances one is addicted to is a long, arduous, complex process. So, sure, methadone is a blunt instrument, but for some people, it’s a necessary – or perhaps the only available – port of call en route to being opiate-free.
The announcement of a new government policy on drug use last week fell far short of what many people working in drug treatment wanted to see happen. Dealing with drug policy as a healthcare issue as opposed to a criminal one is an approach which governments are reluctant to take up. This is because they lack the courage to think differently, because there are few votes in it, and because “law and order” is fetishised even when it’s unnecessarily punitive or runs to research.
As a result of this new policy proposal, about 10 per cent of the 12,000 people who come in contact with the gardaí every year for drug possession for personal use, will be affected by the changes. Those 1,200 people may be referred to the HSE as opposed to being processed through the criminal justice system. If they are caught a second time, a garda may issue an adult caution. It’s hard to believe that the HSE will have adequate resources for what will essentially be quite low-priority appointments.
If personal drug use is a health issue the first time, it is a health issue the hundredth time
Even if dozens of new health workers are added to work specifically in this area, how long will people be on waiting lists to be referred to their healthcare worker as part of this process?
When the public participated in an online consultation on the new drugs policy in development, almost 90 per cent of people wanted criminal penalties for possession to be removed totally. With regards to possession being treated as a health issue initially but then a criminal one after that, a spokesperson from the Ana Liffey Drug Project put it best when they said: “If personal drug use is a health issue the first time, it is a health issue the hundredth time. Using the criminal law to punish someone for not accessing healthcare, or for engaging in behaviours which result in referral to healthcare on multiple occasions is inconsistent with a health-led approach.”
Criminalising drug use does not prevent drug use. Punishing addicts does not prevent drug use. Denying people treatment does not prevent drug use. Confining addicts to small geographical pockets, a type of social kettling, does not prevent drug use. Condemning drug users does not prevent drug use.
Addressing people’s trauma, having empathy for their experiences, meeting people on a non-judgmental level, providing treatment options, and fixing the conditions in society where drug use can often thrive are what is needed. This includes filling the gaps that inadequate housing, familial addiction and violence, poor employment and education opportunities, a lack of purpose or vision for a happy, healthy future, cause. Alleviating those stresses is what prevents drug use.
Addiction is very often a consequence of trauma. Drug use can begin as a coping mechanism, become routine, and end up becoming a purpose in and of itself. In theory, addiction knows no class boundaries, but those whose lives or environments are more chaotic, who have fewer supports, who are under more pressure, who have fewer opportunities, who experience more trauma, who are more vulnerable, are much more likely to come across or end up turning to the type of initial perceived relief and escape and pleasure that drug use can appear to offer.
Not taking the steps to address and alleviate the social pain of drug addiction and the consequences that lead to it – in your back yard or not – is an abdication of responsibility. But then again, can we really expect Fine Gael to care?