Opinion
Subscriber Only

Fintan O’Toole: Ireland’s crack cocaine epidemic has consequences far worse than any viral pandemic

Much of what was eventually achieved in the State’s drugs policy the 1990s is now being reversed

I always knew there were at least two Irelands, that our culture had an extreme capacity for mental compartmentalisation. Ireland was never just "here" – it was always "there" as well. And my "here" could be officialdom's "way over there", another country, another planet.

But this really hit me 40 years ago when heroin flooded my home patch of Crumlin, a housing estate just a few miles from Dublin city centre. Crumlin was actually ground zero of the heroin epidemic: the Dunne family who brought the drug to Ireland lived just around the corner from my family home.

It was a firestorm. One day the Dunnes were offering free samples of the white powder to every kid who went to buy a small lump of hash. The next day, it seemed, there were children shooting up in the park.

The veins through which heroin was pumped were not so much geographic as social

The idea of a plague is on all our minds now, but this felt exactly like one. It was the White Death.

And it was wildly infectious. The contagion raced along the Grand Canal, into the working-class flat complexes: Dolphin House, St Teresa's Gardens and Fatima Mansions. And from there it hit the north inner city, those streets and housing schemes so close to the city's physical heart and yet, mentally, so very far away.

The veins through which this poison was pumped were not so much geographic as social. They were the deep channels of mass unemployment and hopelessness, carved into communities by the near collapse of the whole project of Irish modernisation in the long recession of the 1980s.

The scale of the damage was apocalyptic. In the north inner city one in 10 of all young people aged between 15 and 24 was using heroin. Among girls aged between 15 and 19, the figure was higher than one in eight. The south inner city was reckoned to be even worse.

And the harm was amplified by the interaction of intravenous drug use with another scourge: the Aids crisis. Kids were dying.

What was even more shocking, though, was the capacity of institutional Ireland to simply ignore what was happening. All these places, all these people, were beyond official Ireland’s mental Pale.

In this epidemic, those who caught the disease were left without care. The city had one ramshackle and grossly overcrowded drug treatment facility. The entire country had a single residential addiction treatment centre, at Coolmine, and it was not geared to dealing with heroin users.

In 1985, Garret FitzGerald, who was Taoiseach for much of this period, admitted that “complacency and the misplaced belief that we were somehow sheltered from the world outside” had allowed a “shattering and horrifying situation” to develop.

But this was not just complacency or innocence. It was also a deep, innate, unconscious class prejudice. The communities on the frontline were typically made up of a working class whose work had disappeared as a result of economic and technological change.

These people were human set-aside. They did not count. So they were left almost entirely to their own devices – and condemned as terrorists when those devices of last resort included campaigns to drive drug pushers out of their areas.

It was not until 1996 that Pat Rabbitte, then a junior minister, managed to force through a really serious response to the crisis, in the form of the local drugs taskforces that gave power and resources to those who knew most about what was going on – communities themselves.

None of what is happening in Tallaght is invisible or secret. It is becoming entirely normal to encounter young people begging outside shops to feed their habits

But we have grown up a lot since then, haven’t we? We would surely not repeat the experience of complacency and compartmentalisation, allowing a “shattering and horrifying” epidemic to rage out of control.

Reading the recent report of the Tallaght Drugs and Alcohol Task Force (TDATF) on the plague of crack cocaine in the Tallaght/Whitechurch area, my heart stopped at this sentence: “it is of epidemic proportions and if it is not addressed immediately, it will dwarf the heroin epidemic of the 80’s”.

If there is some (understandable) element of scaremongering in this, we should all be duly scared. The heroin epidemic of the 1980s has had appalling consequences for at least three generations of families: frontline services are still working with the children and grandchildren of those it ensnared.

The crack plague does not need to “dwarf” it for an immediate and urgent response by the State as a whole to be imperative. If it were even potentially half as bad, it would demand attention and action.

None of what is happening in Tallaght is invisible or secret. There are at least a hundred crack houses known to local communities in the area. It is becoming entirely normal to encounter young people begging outside shops to feed their habits or to see people dealing and using on the street.

But there are different kinds of visibility. The reality that is in some people’s faces can also be out of sight and out of mind.

Irish society did this with industrial schools, mental hospitals, Magdalene laundries, Mother and Baby homes. We did it with heroin 40 years ago, and we’re doing it with crack now.

Drug epidemics must be understood as outbreaks of contagious and potentially fatal diseases

Much of what was eventually achieved in the State’s drugs policy the 1990s is actually being reversed. Resources are being taken away from the community-based task forces where they are best deployed.

Current funding for TDATF is €1.2m compared with €1.3m in 2010, even as the social disaster it is supposed to prevent gets steadily worse. Drug-related crime in the area increased by 75 per cent between 2017 and 2018.

Users – especially young women – are extremely vulnerable to intimidation, including being forced into sex work. Thousands of children are living every day with the consequences of parental chaos.

This is all dreadful in itself. But the neglect of the crisis is also disastrous for Irish society as a whole.

It reinforces the old, deeply destructive habit of mind: the unknown known. Our collective capacity to screen out unpleasant realities means that we deal with their consequences only decades later.

We can’t say in relation to one public health crisis that no one is safe until everyone is safe and yet treat another one as if it is occurring in a faraway country of which we know nothing.

Drug epidemics must be understood as outbreaks of contagious and potentially fatal diseases. If they are not recognised early, contained and treated, they grow and spread. In some ways they are worse than viral pandemics, blighting as they do not just those who are infected now, but the generations that will come after them.

What’s happening in Tallaght is a major public health crisis. It is also a test of whether Irish society and government have really moved on from the 1980s.

Are we still addicted to doping ourselves with the illusion that what we choose not to know cannot harm us?