By Gáibhin McGranaghan, News Editor
A public forum on drug reform was hosted on campus last night, examining the drug trade across the island of Ireland as well as exploring present and alternative methods of dealing with individuals involved in it and for those living with addiction.
Titled #RepairRehab, the evening’s discussion was hosted by the Queens’ branch of the SDLP Youth, featuring a panel consisting of Addiction NI’s Programme Manager for Drugs and Alcohol Impact Alex Bunting, North Belfast MLA Nicola Mallon and Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, former Minister of State at the Republic of Ireland’s Department of Health.
Alex Bunting began the seminar by explaining the wider context of the problem, outlining its intricate interconnection with the Troubles and how the conflict’s legacy is still being acutely felt today by individuals living in economically deprived communities, namely those on the Shankill Road and Derry’s Bogside. “Paramilitaries have had their hands in this, even twenty-odd years on from the Good Friday Agreement,” he said. “I don’t think recent events have created much public confidence in Stormont’s ability or even will to deal with these problems either. I can’t stress just how important it is for us to devise a single and cross-departmental strategy for politicians, police officers, schools, and community workers to base their collective efforts on.”
Nicola Mallon echoed Mr Bunting’s sentiments for closer cooperation and more immediate action on tackling substance abuse from the key political and social actors. When asked about her perception of Stormont’s management of the issue, Ms Mallon condemned the lack of progress the Assembly had historically made on, yet commended the current Health Minister, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, for her purported commitment to addressing addiction and suicide prevention. “I’ve had a number of personal one-to-one meetings with her and seen her speak very vocally at mental health conferences. She’s been very clear that this is a priority of her department and I commend that. But at the same time we need to hold those promises to account.”
In December 2015 the Irish government approved the drafting of amendments to existing drugs legislation, proposing licenses to be issued for the establishment of supervised injection centres akin to those already operated in countries such as Canada and Portugal. The bill was passed by the Oireachtas in June of this year, with the first facility of its kind scheduled to open in Dublin before Christmas, though a precise location has yet to be determined.
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin based his approach on the intention of removing the “stigma” from drug addiction and the key to this is preventing, as much as possible, those caught up in addiction from ending up with criminal convictions. He added that the “shame” that dominates the discourse around drug use “disrupts the capacity of families and individuals” to seek help. When asked what the first obstacle the former Health Minister had to overcome to pass his amendment was, Mr Ó Ríordáin replied that he was pleasantly surprised at the openness his then-coalition partners in Fine Gael were to the idea. “I’d a nine month window to achieve something and I had to just go for it. We knew that we were effectively challenging a conventional attitude from the beginning and that it wasn’t going to be easy, but something had to be done to change perceptions.”
When asked about the feasibility of moving any similar bill at Stormont, Nicola Mallon bluntly responded in the negative. “You haven’t a chance, the way things are at the moment. It’s just simply not on any one’s radar in the Assembly, as far as I can see.” Ms Mallon went on to stress the need for genuine political will to tackle the problem. “Things only move along when you have political champions who are themselves personally involved with the issue and committed to seeing solutions for it put into practice word for word.”
At present, almost every party sitting in the Assembly has an official policy of a blanket prohibition on using narcotics for recreational use; only the Green Party and People Before Profit openly favour a policy of decriminalisation. Rehabilitative systems for those living with addiction has been proposed in these parties’ and Sinn Féin’s and the SDLP’s respective manifestos.