Henrik Norlander

Political will is needed to tackle drug pandemic

Drug abuse is now “a silent pandemic” in Ireland and political will is needed to tackle it, Dundalk-based Bishop Michael Router has said. The bishop said many people are too frightened to speak out because of intimidation by organised crime gangs — and among those who must rethink their behaviour are “well-to-do or middle-aged” people who use drugs as “a recreational activity” but who are helping fund gangs that prey on socially deprived families.

It’s a very silent pandemic because it’s under the radar and people are frightened,” he said. “They are too afraid to speak out.”

Bishop Router is the auxiliary bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Armagh, which straddles both sides of the Border. He said gangs in the Border region continue to be “very brazen” in drug dealing and intimidation.

Speaking of ways drugs are blighting the region, he said he was told “there is a Gaelic football club that is finding it hard to field a team because so many players are on drugs”.

He was informed that four family farms in Cavan and Monaghan “had lands that had to be sold because of drug debts that had been run up”.

“We know how much farmers love their land and how they are attached to their land, so that shows just how serious this issue of drugs is right now,” he said.

“In rural parts of Co Cavan, you can get a delivery of drugs to your door quicker than you can get a pizza.”

He recalled a funeral when he was parish priest of Bailieborough where the bereaved family gave him permission to speak out about drugs.

He said: “It was suicide and he had been in a bad way because of drugs. He was a past pupil of mine. I had taught him for a number of years.”

Bishop Router told the Sunday Independent of his initial reluctance to go public last week about funding problems that threatened the closure of the regional Family Addiction Support Network.

He had appealed for an urgent meeting with Junior Health Minister Frank Feighan to put an end to delays in funding for the volunteer-run organisation, which provides counselling, respite, education and an intimidation reporting service for families of addicts in Louth, Cavan, Monaghan and Meath.

He said there can be silence about the problem of drugs because intimidation causes people to remain silent. Otherwise, people who are not affected do not talk about the issue because they are not involved personally.

“We’re all shocked when awful things happen like the killing of Keane Mulready-Woods in Drogheda,” he said. “There’s eight or nine days of media coverage and then interest dies down again. It’s just seen as something that happens in socially deprived areas.

“We need a conversation about drug use in this country. And people who are well-to-do or middle-aged and using drugs as a recreational activity really have to examine their own behaviour and the effect of their recreational use of drugs.

“There are families that are well-to-do who have the resources to pay off a drug debt and who can afford to send their loved ones to a private clinic for treatment. There’s a lot of people in socially deprived areas not able to do that and it’s devastating,” he said.

Organised crime gangs were causing immense damage to individuals, families and communities, he said.

“Part of the intimidation isn’t necessarily getting money from the individual in debt to them, but getting them to do things to others or to deal drugs for them,” he said. “Very often the person picked up on the street for drug dealing has a gun held to their head in the metaphorical sense.

“Unless we move the vulnerable people out of the circle of influence of these gangs, we are going nowhere. As long as there are vulnerable people they can prey on, then there is going to be trouble.

“After poor Keane was murdered, I did make an offer to mediate to try to end the feud in Drogheda. There was one inkling of me being a possible intermediary, but then it went dead. I don’t know if it would have achieved anything.

“These people don’t want to lose their life either in the way that poor unfortunate boy did. There has to be a certain fear there all the time.”

Those who point out that what they are doing is evil and totally wrong and the only way to deal with them is through the courts and policy make a valid point too, he said. The drug pandemic was contributing to the breaking down of communities not just in urban areas but even in remote rural areas.

“We are building up problems for the future because there will be mental health issues, and there’s the stress caused by intimidation and all the rest. These issues will be huge in the future and our services are struggling already.

“That is why groups like Family Addiction Support Network are intervening to help families.

“Once the breakdown of the family comes, there’s an awful lot of problems that come with that,” he said, adding that the plight of each addict can affect the lives of several loved ones.

“Until there is the political will to actually deal with the problem and its causes, we are not going to see much improvement… Where is the action to meet the rhetoric?”

He questioned why groups like the network “have to go through such hoops to be considered for money and then get a pittance afterwards”.

Bishop Router is the liaison bishop with the Irish Bishops Drugs Initiative which provides a programme of education in schools on the issue of drug

He praised the work of the 20 volunteers who work for the regional Family Addiction Support Network which has groups in Dundalk, Drogheda, Castleblaney, Navan and Cavan. Volunteers include Dundalk-based project manager Jackie McKenna and her sister Gwen, who has been a family support specialist for many years.

Jackie told the Sunday Independent that families of drug users endure years of chaos, anxiety and sleepless nights.

Families must also contend with stigma, shame and isolation and they need support to cope with the problems and pressures that come from a loved one being addicted to drugs.

Often family members can come under huge financial pressure from drug gangs who demand they pay their loved ones’ drug debts to avoid them being harmed or murdered.

She said it was wonderful to witness how the parents and loved ones of addicts, having suffered serious stress and worry for years, can benefit significantly from the practical support offered by the volunteer-run network.

“Family members need to feel seen, heard, and believed and to feel safe,” she added.

She said the network had submitted detailed applications for State funding but received only a very small percentage of what it requested.

She hoped the network’s sponsored 5km road race in Dundalk on October 17 would help bring much-needed funds to continue their work.

She said she was delighted that Dundalk Credit Union had agreed to be the event’s main sponsor, and hoped other individuals and businesses in the four counties will be generous to support a vital cause to help so many families under stress in the region by donating through the Network’s website, fasn.ie

FASN Helpline 087 9046405