- 26 Jul 19
“For the council to cite tourism as a reason for not allowing this centre to go ahead, over the lives it might save, is preposterous," Ireland's former drug policy lynchpin says.
Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who as the then Minister of State for National Drugs Strategy was responsible for getting the cabinet to agree to the pilot medically Supervised Injecting Facility (SIF), has reacted to the news that Dublin City Council has refused Merchant’s Quay planning permission to run the service in their existing Dublin 8 premises.
“When it got cabinet approval in 2015 and then passed by the Oireachtas without amendments – there were no political objections to it whatsoever – I honestly thought it’d be up and running within a year or two maximum,” the Senator tells Hot Press. “Generally when there’s societal opposition to something it filters its way through the political system and finds its way into an amendment, but there was nothing from anybody. I felt then that there was big political backing for this; obviously there’s the planning issue, but it’s going to be successful. Where we are now is symptomatic of a wider problem in Irish society, which is 'are these people important?' And they’re not. They’re powerless. If this were an issue that effected cattle or sheep or middle-class Ireland, it would have been dealt with and resolved by now. But it doesn’t effect sheep or cattle or middle-class Ireland, it effects vulnerable bottom of the priority-list street heroin users who people don’t have an awful lot of time or sympathy for. They accuse them of being masters of their own misfortune. Therefore they’re not a political priority, and these things are allowed to slide and elongate.
“For the council to cite tourism as a reason for not allowing this centre to go ahead, over the lives it might save, is preposterous.”
Asked how this reflects on the current Minister for National Drugs Strategy, Catherine Byrne, the Senator says: “Politicians don’t have any control over the planning process – which is a good thing given the history of this country – but you would have thought that, in tandem with the Department of Justice, the Minister would have ironed out the lack of a Garda policing plan. The Guards say a policing plan can’t be put in place until planning permission’s granted, and the council say planning permission can’t be granted until there’s a policing plan – it’s a nonsense.
“The Gardai’s responsibility is to implement the law, and this is the law of the land. It’s been passed by both houses of the Oireachtas. They have to find a way, that’s what they’re paid for. The lack of a plan is really frustrating. Outside of the legislation, there are a lot of soft powers that ministers have. They can demand things of people; they can clear their diary and say, ‘I’m having six meetings in a row on this issue and this issue alone. I’m going to drag in every agency whatsoever who’s involved in this and talk to them. I’m going to meet the Mayor and the City Manager.’ I’ve got no sense of that happening. You had the Taoiseach and various different ministers launching the National Drugs Strategy but I don’t know where they are today. I don’t know where they are in this entire process.
"A government source was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying that the project has few friends in government and will be allowed to die. It’s very hard not to feel that isn’t the situation now.”
Asked what Minister Byrne and her Justice colleagues can do to redeem themselves, the Senator says: “A number of things. They can give notice that they’re appealing this decision to An Bord Pleanála. They can also pursue other sites like Abbey Street where the Ana Liffey Drug Project are also prepared to open a SIF. They could take it outside of Dublin city and pilot the project in Cork where lobby groups are asking for one to be located. They can get this off the ground as a concept, and once the concept’s proven to be successful all these issues with planning will be easier to deal with.”
The organisation mentioned by the Senator as alternative SIF service providers, the Ana Liffey Drug Project, have come out in support of their service providing counterparts.
"While we're disappointed in the initial decision to refuse planning permission to MQI, it’s important to note that whatever the outcome of this initial process was, it was always likely to be appealed to An Bord Pleanála, and we expect that may still be the case,” reflects their CEO Tony Duffin. “However, what is more important is that the people who need this service are still injecting ing drugs on the street - a situation that everyone agrees is unacceptable - two years after our elected representatives passed the required legislation. In that regard, what this decision does do is raise the urgent need for contingency planning to get this service up and running. One option would be to quickly establish mobile units to provide the service.”
Hot Press Deputy Editor Stuart Clark, who earlier this month wrote an open letter to Leo Varadkar calling on him to personally intervene and speed up the SIF process, adds: “The Dublin City Council statement references ‘the growing tourism economy’ but not the heroin users who’ve overdosed in the public toilets at Connolly Station; alone down a faeces-strewn D2 alleyway; and in a stairwell in a residential block on Foley Street, all of which are on their patch. Nowhere in the statement is any empathy or concern shown for the estimated 400 people who are publicly injecting in Dublin. Heads should hang in shame.
“Aodhán’s ministerial successor, Catherine Byrne, was on Newstalk this morning robustly re-stating the government’s support for the SIF," Clark continues, "but has otherwise done little to publicly support Merchant’s Quay during this process. All round, there’s been a lack of political leadership.”