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citizens assembly

'If cattle were dying, not humans, there would be action': Citizens' assembly on drugs delayed

The delay until 2023 will cost lives, Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said.

LAST UPDATE | 21 Feb 2022

A DELAY IN holding a citizens’ assembly on drug use in Ireland will cost lives, a former drugs minister has warned.

The assembly was expected to take place this year but has been pushed back until 2023, The Journal has confirmed.

Reacting to the news, Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who previously served as drugs minister, said he is “stunned” by the delay and has “lost all patience and confidence in” current minister Frank Feighan.

“This is beyond frustrating. People are dying, apparently their lives aren’t worth enough to act. If cattle were dying at the same rate as people are dying from drug overdoses, there would have been a citizens’ assembly on it yesterday.

“This delay shows the lack of urgency, the lack of care, the lack of compassion of the Government. If Dublin doesn’t have a directly elected mayor in five years, no one will die. This delay is costing lives. It is a disgusting disgrace,” Ó Ríordáin told The Journal.

Ireland has one of the highest rates of drug-related overdose rates in Europe, with hundreds of people dying every year.

Campaigners recently expressed frustration that other topics for citizens’ assemblies were given the green light to take place ahead of the assembly on drug use.

Earlier this month Cabinet signed off on two other citizens’ assemblies that are expected to take place this year, focusing on the State’s response to biodiversity and the type of directly elected mayor and local government structures which best suit Dublin.

These two assemblies will run concurrently and host their inaugural meetings in April.

Despite this, it was still hoped that the assembly on drugs might still happen later this year – with the Taoiseach indicating in the Dáil on 9 February that this was still the desired timeline.

Drugs Minister Frank Feighan today confirmed that the assembly on drug use will not happen in 2022.

“I welcome the clarity on the timeframe for the citizens’ assembly on drug use from the Government leaders. I look forward to the citizens’ assembly taking place in 2023, once the other assemblies are completed,” he noted in a statement.

“I am very positive about the potential contribution of the citizens assembly to the Government’s health-led approach to drugs.”

The minister added that he wants the CA to focus on two issues in particular, namely:

  • how can we better meet the health needs of people who use drugs?
  • how can we minimise the harmful impact of drugs on children, families and communities?

“I would like to see an international component to the citizens assembly, so that we can share good practice from the British Ireland Council work sector on drugs (which I chair) and the EU drugs strategy and action plan, which Ireland strongly supports,” Feighan added.

‘I went down on my knees to beg him’

Ó Ríordáin has consistently raised the issue with Feighan, saying: “I felt like I went down on my knees to beg him because we’ve been waiting for so long for this minister to step up to give any kind of indication that he understands how important his role is.

He noted that, in order to make progress, opposition TDs and senators from various parties and none have tried to work on the issue in a coordinated fashion.

“We want direction, we want leadership. We have been pleading with him to take action.”

Speaking in the Dáil on 9 February, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said: “As regards drugs policy, it is our view that we will have a citizens’ assembly in the latter part of this year. However, that does not mean there is nothing happening with drugs policy.

“It is an urgent and serious issue that has to be dealt with in the context of a community-up approach, with multidisciplinary supports going into the communities most affected, along with a health-based approach. In any event, we are very seized of the serious situation in many communities as a result of drug abuse.”

Ó Ríordáin said he can’t fathom why there seems to be a lack of political will to tackle the issue, noting the Green Party, as well as certain members of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael “care about this”. However, he added that the inaction to date is “an absolute failure of the two larger parties”.

Labour Youth is organising a demonstration outside Leinster House at 5pm on 1 March to protest the issue.

‘A clear failure’

Senator Lynn Ruane said the delay means it will be virtually impossible for the current Government to address the issue and implement any recommendations within its term.

“It goes without saying that suggesting this work won’t even begin within the next calendar year is not only disappointing but a clear failure on behalf of the minister and department to negotiate a citizens’ assembly on a vital part of his brief,” the independent senator told The Journal.

“To break down the reality of this in terms of action, a delay until 2023, then the nine months or so of the assembly, then a chance for this Government to assess and implement any of the recommendations makes it almost impossible that this Government will address this issue in their time.”

The Seanad is due to debate citizens’ assemblies on Wednesday and Ruane plans to raise the issue at this meeting.

The Programme for Government includes a commitment to convene a number of citizens’ assemblies, including one to consider matters relating to drug use. These assemblies have played a notable role in Irish politics in recent years, particularly ahead of the referendum which repealed the Eighth Amendment and removed the country’s constitutional ban on abortion.

The citizens’ assembly on drugs is expected to run concurrently with an assembly on the future of education next year.

The citizens’ assembly on Dublin’s lord mayor will have 40 randomly selected members, while the assemblies on biodiversity and drug use will comprise 100 members.

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