IT MAY SEEM obvious, but the first challenge for all of us trying to tackle drug use and criminality is to care. As George Bernard Shaw said: indifference is the essence of inhumanity.
Firstly I want to plant a thought into your heads before returning to it later. Writing in the Guardian newspaper last year, the author Neil Gaiman told how he once attended a lecture organised by private prison operators in the United States. In planning for the future capacity needs in this service 15 years into the future, the prison industry employed a very simple test – the percentage of 10 and 11 year old children in any given district with acute literacy problems.
The link between educational underachievement, social empowerment and a drugs and crime culture is real and also extremely complex. There are no simple ways to describe the problem, to address it or to solve it. It is my contention that it is only a society ill at ease with itself – rife with inequalities visible and invisible, refusing to challenge or to re-invent itself – that is destined to produce a culture that is so vicious and so deadly and causes so much human hurt and suffering.
Using simplistic, evocative, exploitative or sensationalist language does not inform the discussion. In my view, it turns what is a public policy emergency into comicbook-style pseudo-entertainment.
A battle of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’
It is easier to paint this struggle as a battle of good versus evil, of decent citizens versus so-called ‘scumbags’. When we engage in that type of simplistic characterisation we are destined never to properly address the complexities at hand.
However middle-class Ireland needs to hear that is a simple case of bad people doing bad things. It makes them feel safer and more secure – and that they are not in any way culpable for living in a society where such violent acts occur and such a cancerous vice like the drugs trade exists.
They are told that there are bad areas where bad people do bad things to each other. And as long as they are fed that line, then the status quo will remain. It doesn’t really matter as long as they are shooting each other. This rhetoric suits many vested interests, including journalists and conservative politicians. Poorer people are not politically or commercially advantageous and so can be easily disregarded.
What is more challenging is to ask what has happened in our country to create a parallel economy of a drugs trade which attracts, empowers and effectively employs so many.
Why is it that, if you spend time observing proceedings in the district court, you will be presented with case after case of recidivist criminals caught in a hopeless spiral of drug-related crime, which they were sucked into at such a young age and which will continue to blight their lives for the years to come?
Why do most of Irish society pretend that it has nothing to do with them?
It is important to sketch out the type of society that we live in before we discuss the nature of drug crime and what an organised response might look like.
- A society where 30% of children in disadvantaged areas have basic reading problems
- Where almost one-fifth of our adult population are functionally illiterate
- Where in some poorer areas 25% of young mothers suffer from maternal depression
- Where 21% of children go to school or to bed hungry every day.
We work hard to keep ourselves separated
If these statistics surprise you, or if they cause you little upset, then unfortunately you are part of the problem.
What we have constructed in Ireland is a society where we work as hard as we can to keep ourselves separated from each other. This is the antithesis of what a Republic should stand for. Surely we should strive to live in a society that works to fulfil the needs of all our people, that believes in solidarity and justice, and that an injury to one is the concern of all.
Our fascination with separation permeates through every area of Irish public policy. Think education, think housing, think healthcare. What we strive for as individuals is an individualistic approach that separates: we want schools that separate, hospitals that separate and housing policy that separates.
If you are on the right side of that separation or that division, you can be sure that life may work out fine for you. However if you’re not, life will be more difficult, you may be presented with choices that others never encounter, your frustration may grow, your inability to access the other side of the line may fester within you, your crimes are more public and more obvious because you are poorer, and eventually you will be called a ‘scumbag’ to simplify the issue. Your actions overtake you, some which may have been handed down to you, many which you will hand down yourself to others. But you’re just a scumbag.
It’s simpler for those on the right side of the line to blame others for their own disadvantage, their own poverty and for slipping into their own despair.
Our hang-up on home ownership
Our post-colonial hang up on home ownership, which is unmatched anywhere in a European context, ensures that social housing units are clustered, often not integrated resulting in social isolation and marganisation. Once an individual get a mortgage, they will protect that investment with all their might, against anything that may affect it, be that council housing units, or localised medical treatment for people with a clear identifiable medical need.
The housing policy of constructing flat complexes with poor or virtually no social infrastructure in the 40s, 50s and 60s was compounded in the bubble economy of recent times, when their potential rejuvenation was left to the jungle-law of market forces under Public-Private Partnerships. And what happened to the much heralded new dawns for O’Devaney Gardens, Croke Villas, St Michael’s House, Dominic Street flats, St Michin’s House? Stalled, abandoned or shelved.
As a society, we do not want to allow people to live together. We prefer to create areas of social disadvantage because it benefits the property owners and the market. We refuse to invest in them over generations, we refuse to improve their living conditions as a matter of public policy from the public purse and then we are somehow bemused that out of such areas comes a sense of disillusionment and disconnection, and within that a small minority of people who will engage in a parallel economy to seek empowerment and to fulfil their personal ambitions.They don’t vote so we don’t care. They don’t spend so the market economy doesn’t care. And markets, as we know, have no conscience.
Everyone seeks significance. From the face of a loved one. From colleagues. From family, From friends. It is our most basic need to feel valued. If you feel in your core that you are not valued by the education system, by the judicial system, by media or politicians – are you expected to work hard to gain respect? Or do you become the best of the worst of what society expects of you? And when role-models in business, banking, politics, church and police show time and again to have elements of corruption that goes unpunished, why are you expected to behave yourself? To get on the other side of the line? To lie, to cheat, to kill but merely with a nicer suit and a more polished accent and within the realm of respectability?
Our failure to invest in pre-school education
I have said many times that the greatest policy failure in Ireland is our failure to invest in pre-school education. It makes no economic sense, it makes no educational sense in terms of developmental impact. The greatest return on resources is on the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. It is the opposite of where we spend money in Ireland.
The Hart and Risley report of 1995 showed that a three year old from a welfare dependent family has one third the oral language capability of a three year old from a professional family. If we know this, how are we supporting that child? How are we supporting its parents? Or are we waiting for it to inevitably become part of the research data for those who plan prison spaces?
We must challenge the contention that educational underachievement is a schooling concern. All of us will know that the supportive parent has the biggest influence on the educational attainment of a young person. The cultural divide between the aspiration of the classroom and the reality of the home can be extremely wide. That is why we need to think differently about the way we approach educational empowerment. It cannot be merely about what we want middle class teachers to do with working class children from the age of 4 onwards from 9 in the morning till the early afternoon.
We discredit ourselves by claiming to be land of saints and scholars; to laud out literary heritage; to celebrate Joyce, Beckett, Yeats and Wilde but fail to address intergenerational illiteracy. Why don’t we commit ourselves completely as others have, to the total eradication of illiteracy.
My Right to Read campaign which I launched in 2006 attempts to bridge this gulf. By making the scourge of illiteracy the responsibility of every state agency, most especially local authorities who house our more disadvantaged children, who manage their social infrastructure and who crucially deliver the public library service.
Caitlin Moran, the British feminist writer calls public libraries the Cathedrals of Our Souls. She writes:
A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination.
On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate “need” for “stuff.” A mall–the shops–are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier.
But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.
Underserving the politically weak
Our attempts at treating crime and drug dependency regularly fall at the wayside of political expediency. The National Drugs Strategy demands that addicts are treated within their own community, and recognises their challenge as a medical condition that demands treatment. Yet how often have local representatives lobbied against any drug treatment centre or facility being located in their community. They know that those with addictions are politically week, have no voting power and don’t have access to main-stream media to plead their case.
I do not and will not excuse the actions of those who kill, maim or intimidate in the interest of greed, financial gain or for a perverse lust for power. The grip of drug gangs is poisonous, their influence menacing. The mental trauma caused in a community after a shooting is enormous. I have worked it, I have lived it, I work everyday to change it. To condemn however is not enough.
But before such individuals became classified as a sub-species, they were babies and then children with choices ahead of them that others would never be presented with.
Our task in the short term is to reduce recidivist drug crime. It is achievable, and it will benefit all in society but does society believe this issue to be serious enough for us to care. Let us challenge our humanity, and not surrender to our indifference.
This article has been adapted from a speech given by Aodhán Ó Ríordáin during a seminar on crime in the Seanad last week.
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is a Labor TD in Dublin Bay North.