President officially opens the City Wide Drugs Crisis Campaign 20th Anniversary Conference

Thu 12th Nov, 2015 | 10:30
location: The Hogan Suite, Croke Park

Opening address of the Citywide 20th Anniversary Conference

Croke Park Conference Centre, 12th November 2015

A dhaoine uaisle, a chairde,

Tá áthas orm a bheith anseo ar maidin ag comóradh 20 bliain Citywide, chun an obair mhór atá déanta agaibh ar son an phobal a cheiliúradh agus a athaint. Gabhaim buíochas le Anna Quigley as ucht a cuiridh dom labhairt anseo inniu, agus libhse ar fad as an fíorchaoin fáilte sin.

I am delighted to be here in Croke Park this morning for Citywide’s 20th anniversary conference “Our Communities, Our World – A Drugs Policy that Works” and to celebrate and acknowledge the enormous contribution that Citywide has made to our community. I thank Anna Quigley for inviting me to speak here today, and all of you for that generous welcome.

The beginnings of Citywide are rooted in a Dublin where drug taking had entered the lives of a second generation of young Irish people, and where a heroin epidemic was infiltrating and destroying many disadvantaged and marginalised communities. The transmission of AIDS and Hepatitis C was presenting an increasing public health challenge, while the growing availability of cocaine, ecstacy and other drugs was putting more young people at risk.  

Twenty years on, the situation remains challenging. Last year, a report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that the rate of drug-induced deaths in Ireland in 2011 was the third highest in Europe and four times the EU rate. It also found that, while heroin and cocaine related deaths had decreased, non-heroin opiate-related deaths, involving for example methadone, codeine and other prescription opiates had increased.

These are worrying facts and, behind the stark figures and statistics lie the many lives ruined, futures lost, and families ruptured by harmful drug use. There are also the many sad and individual stories of those whose potential and possibilities have been diminished through their addiction to drugs; stories of mistakes and regret, of lost opportunities and vanishing hopes, of the hurts they have inflicted on others and that have been inflicted upon them.

These are, in many cases, also stories that have, at their heart, a genuine desire and resolve to overcome addiction and become a proactive and participative member of their community. Overall, they are the stories of citizens with whom we share a common humanity and it is critical that society does not fail them, but works with compassion, care and solidarity to empower those who wish to exit the frightening and isolating world of addiction.

A main theme of my Presidency has been to build an inclusive Republic – one in which all citizens are treated with equal dignity and respect and are empowered to participate in our democracy.  As a society we have made progress in realising equality for many groups – for example through the Marriage Equality referendum earlier this year; but discrimination, marginalisation, and stigmatisation persist. If we are to achieve the goal of a true Republic and give expression to the vision of universal human rights, then we must seek out and embrace those of our fellow citizens who are most vulnerable and suffer the greatest exclusion.

As all of you here today know, drug users and those affected by addiction are often in that position of exclusion and denial of citizenship. They are often regarded as being outside or even below the community of rights-holders in our society. Their addiction – a medical and social condition which causes them suffering and impairment – is used as a basis to dehumanise drug users.  That dehumanisation takes the form of stigmatisation and derogatory language; and it leads to a denial of services, a lack of voice, and even, on occasion, is used as a justification for victimisation.

Citywide is grounded on the ethical mission of standing with those in their community who are affected by drugs, in solidarity, with compassion and without judgment.  It is often to their community that addicts turn as they seek to reclaim their lost selves and become, once again, engaged citizens with a lifetime of possibility in front of them.  For some time now the value of a community approach and active citizenship in supporting those struggling with addiction, and providing a base on which to build effective policy, has been widely recognised.  There can be no doubt about the real merit in allowing individuals to engage and participate in the decisions which affect and shape their communities, and the critical role of communities in ensuring long term sustainable solutions to problems such as drug abuse within our society.

We are greatly indebted to those innovative founders of Citywide who recognised the importance twenty years ago of promoting community involvement in existing structures to tackle drug abuse, allowing for the development of responses based on the actual needs identified by the communities themselves.

The achievements of Citywide across those two decades have been impressive. By supporting community groups and individuals to participate in partnership structures on an equal footing with other sectors, Citywide has built the capacity of communities to play a key role in the development of their areas, including actively participating in discussions and debate around issues of concern and the formulation of potential solutions.   

Your support has also been critical to the establishment of the National Family Support Network, and to the setting up of the National Service Users’ Forum; while your tireless advocacy for the development of drugs services to meet the needs of vulnerable groups, such as travellers, new communities, the homeless and the LGBT community is admirable. Again, this is a powerful and practical expression of the values of inclusion and universal human rights.

The issues that Citywide deals with are universal – they are not singular to Dublin or to Ireland. In April 2016, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem in New York will consider the effectiveness of global strategies to counteract the drug problem.   There is no doubt that in the deepening debate on drug policy, we are witnessing a shift internationally from a criminal justice response to drug use to a response based primarily on a public health perspective.

Ireland will contribute to this debate, and continue to underline the importance of promoting a balanced approach to the global drug problem, that is underpinned by the promotion and protection of human rights. The active participation of civil society and other relevant stakeholders in the run up to UNGASS will be vitally important, and I am aware that Citywide has played a very active role at the EU Civil Society Forum on Drugs ensuring that the voices of local communities in Ireland are heard at European and international level. I commend and thank you for that.

In the 20 years that Citywide has been in operation, the nature and scale of the drug problem in Ireland has changed quite significantly. While many disadvantaged communities still bear the brunt of the drug problem, addiction has increasingly affected people from all walks of life and from different communities and social backgrounds.

Today, there can be very few people in Ireland whose lives have not been touched by addiction in some form or other. It is estimated that for every individual directly affected by addiction, at least eight other people’s lives are affected, including partners, children, parents, grandparents, siblings, colleagues and friends.

The abuse of drugs and other substances continues to contribute to a wide range of health, social and behavioural problems across a wide spectrum of Irish society but we are, thankfully, moving towards working with those affected by drugs misuse with the respect and compassion they deserve.

Today’s conference, where you will examine lessons to date and how we can link our own experience to international debate, and to a public health and human rights approach to tackling drug addiction,  is undoubtedly another important milestone in the development of our thinking in relation to the drug problem.

The themes of your workshops, which include Developing the Role of Community Drugs Projects; The Role of the Media and how to support a rational and informed public debate on drug policy reform; Developing a Human Rights Approach to the Delivery of Drugs Services; and Developing an integrated approach to Homelessness and Drug Use are important ones for which effective solutions are critical and urgent.

As a country we owe a great debt to Citywide who, across the years have reached out to those who struggle to address addiction in their lives and to live creatively and realise their own unique path and endless possibilities.  Your work continues to be vital as we work to craft a shared future in which all our citizens are treated with dignity, allowed a voice and a right to participate in society.

Is sampla íontach í Citywide den saoránacht gníomhach agus den daonlathas, is eagraíocht í a léiríonn na tréithe is fearr i sochaí na hÉireann. Is mór an pribhléid a bheith anseo inniu agus mar fhocal scoir is mian liom gach rath a ghuí ar bhur gcomhdháil agus ar bhur n-oibar thabhachtach amach anseo.

Citywide is a valuable and uplifting example of participative citizenship and democracy, reminding us of all that is best about Irish society.  It has been a privilege to be here today and may I conclude by wishing you every success with today’s conference and with your continued valuable work.