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[Oireachtas] Dail Eireann debate. Leaders' questions. (12 Dec 2019)

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Deputy Dara Calleary: Anyone who listened to Tommy Meskill's interview with Johnny Downey on "Morning Ireland" this morning will have been very moved. Jack Downey, Johnny's son, was 19. He was an accounting student. His father said he loved GAA and he loved life. He was not a drug taker; indeed, his father said he would not even take an Anadin. One day last August he left home at 10.30 a.m. and at 9 p.m. Johnny and Elaine received a phone call that Jack had been admitted to Cork University Hospital.


When Jack was leaving that morning, his father told him to be careful and he responded, "Ah sure, I was there last year. I'll be fine." It was only his second concert. He made one mistake and the consequences were absolutely catastrophic. His death has had a profound effect on his family and his community. Johnny spoke this morning about something we need to ask people to do this Christmas: parents need have the conversation about drugs with their teenage children. I know it will be a very difficult conversation for some parents to have. It would be much more difficult to get the phone call that Johnny and Elaine got on that Friday evening about their beloved Jack. Taking a chance cost Jack his life. What Johnny and Elaine want - what we all want - is that there be no more Jacks and that nobody else has to walk the walk that they are walking at the moment. It must have taken enormous courage for Johnny to do that interview with Tommy Meskill this morning. He is not looking for attention or glory; he just wants parents to have that conversation. It has never been as important to have that conversation.


Health Research Board, HRB, figures for drug-related deaths in Ireland in 2017 show that more than one person a day is dying related to drugs. Deputy Curran has highlighted this issue for many years and the position is getting worse. The availability and potency of drugs is getting worse. It is no longer just a city issue; it is in every community. The Government is not responding and there is legislative inaction.


Would the Tánaiste agree that we need to review the licensing of concerts to ensure that those who promote concerts are made to take responsibility for illegal drug availability at those concerts? Just as they must take responsibility for security and alcohol, is it not time to clamp down on drug availability at concerts?

Given those HRB figures, the increasing availability of drugs in our communities and the involvement of children as young as ten selling drugs, is the Government losing the fight against drugs?


The Tánaiste: I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I did not hear this morning's interview, but I am sure it was heartbreaking. Any parent's worst nightmare is for a child not to come home in those circumstances. The Government absolutely recognises that we have a major challenge, as so many other countries have, to respond in a substantive way to drug use. The number of deaths linked to cocaine use and poisoning has increased, as has the number linked to the use of heroin and other drugs, sometimes prescription drugs. Alcohol is also a significant killer.


We have a comprehensive national drugs strategy. It is broken into various elements, including promoting health and well-being. The Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the HSE are involved. From a policing perspective the issues the Deputy has raised are pertinent. The Garda Síochána is active in this area. We have increased its capacity in terms of drugs response and we have increased garda numbers.

Having said that, particularly those of us living outside Dublin will have seen an increase in the availability of illegal drugs on the streets of our cities and towns. The Government is constantly looking to improve the response on that.


I can speak to the Minister responsible and come back to the Deputy on concert licensing. That can be looked at if the Deputy believes it would be helpful. We need to give a very clear message to parents and families that the Government wants to support them. As the Taoiseach said yesterday, we need to be tough on crime and also tough on the causes of crime in terms of the illegal drugs trade. We also need to raise awareness more effectively than we have been able to do among young people of the dangers of illegal drug use, given the tragedy that so many families have faced not just in 2017, but also in 2018, for which we do not yet have figures.


Deputy Dara Calleary: I reiterate the HRB figures. A total of 786 people died from drug related deaths in 2017. Those are the ones that are registered and that we know about. It is essential for the Government to strengthen the legislation on the availability of drugs at concerts and large gatherings. Promoters are making considerable money on these concerts and it is time for them to know there are consequences and to accept responsibility for those consequences.


The Tánaiste mentioned those of us living outside Dublin. Senior gardaí are saying we risk losing an entire generation unless we get to grips with the drugs problem. The slogans are all very welcome, but we need action on the ground, including extra gardaí in the drugs units. Mayo, one of the biggest counties in the country, has only five gardaí in the drugs unit. More resources need to be put in there. The Government is diminishing the incredibly important work of our regional drugs and alcohol task forces. They have not been given sufficient budgets. The proposal on the table is that they be recentralised, meaning that their reach into communities will be weakened. We never needed them more in communities than we do now. They need to be properly resourced and given the powers to do what the Tánaiste mentioned: building awareness and giving warnings in communities.

It is time for the Government to get serious about drugs. It is time for the Government to take it on and give it the attention it needs, and not lose a generation.


The Tánaiste: The Government is already very serious about drugs, which is why we are trying to break this enormous challenge into its component parts, including providing more services for homeless people who are affected by addiction, putting in place injection centres for people to inject safely rather than potentially poisoning themselves with overdoses or with dirty needles. These are difficult challenges the Government is determined to take on. We are also providing extra healthcare drug-treatment opportunities for people trying to wean themselves off addiction. That is what we are doing at that end of the spectrum.


On the recreational side, which in some ways is an inappropriate description of drug use in night clubs, parties, concerts and so on, we have put many extra resources into An Garda Síochána in this area. The Garda has implemented the national drugs strategy training programme for members of the force working in drug units within communities.


They have trained 60 extra Garda members since the programme commenced, which only commenced last year. From a policing perspective and from an awareness, health and addiction management perspective we are putting significant resources into the different elements of this problem, which are complex.

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