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'We've seen people die, people beaten up horrifically': This primary school doesn't want an injecting centre 300m from its front door

A plan to open a medically supervised injecting facility has been met with fierce local opposition.

IT’S A DULL Thursday morning in Dublin’s south inner city and the preschool pupils of St Audoen’s National School are milling about their classroom. 

In one room, a group of 3- to 4-year-olds are being conducted by a teacher through a rendition of Dublin’s Fair City. In the classroom next to that, children are playing with toys, laughing and running around.

The windows of the preschool room look out onto Cook Street, and directly across the road is the entrance to the 40 Steps – old stone steps that lead upwards to St Audoen’s Park and church, in the direction of Christ Church Cathedral.

Every classroom of the primary school looks out onto the street and the green space across the road. 

“So the 40 steps are the most common area for drug use,” principal of the school Eilish Meagher explains. 

Since 2015, Meagher – who has worked in the school for 18 years and been the principal for eight – has been keeping a log of all the incidents related to drug use and anti-social behaviour that she and other staff members witness from the windows of the school.

Cook Street – a busy side road of tour buses and apartment buildings  – is a hotspot of anti-social behaviour and public injecting by intravenous drugs users.   

“We’ve had to call emergency services, we’ve resuscitated people ourselves. We’ve removed drugs off the ground from next to bodies, we’ve seen people die, we’ve seen people beaten up horrifically,” she says. 

IMG_0748 The 40 Steps - an area of frequent public injecting - as seen from the classrooms of St Audeon's. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

Meagher says on average she records about three incidents like this a week.

“But if I could sit at the window and report on everything, I’d fill a book probably in a week,” she says.

Meagher also has multiple photographs she has taken of incidents to go along with the log entries that illustrate the problem.

TheJournal.ie has seen pictures of men tying up, of people injecting drugs into their groins, emergency services trying to resuscitate people, women injecting drugs on the 40 steps, violence, and discarded drug paraphernalia in and around the school. 

The reason Meagher is highlighting the issues faced by the school, is that St Audoen’s – along with multiple businesses, residents, parents and community members – are vehemently opposed to the opening of a medically supervised injecting centre on Merchant’s Quay, just 300m door-to-door from the school.

They believe that Dublin 8 has been allowed to decline significantly as a result of an over-concentration of drug support and treatment centres in the surrounding areas.

IMG_0736 Eilish Meagher sitting at her desk. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

Meagher, the staff, parents and the Board of St Audoen’s believe that the proposed new centre – which will provide intravenous drug users with a safer, medically supervised place in which to inject heroin or other drugs – will only add to the decline and issues already prevalent in the area.

Meagher wants to protect the children of St Audoen’s ensure they are not exposed to the worst features of Dublin’s drug problem. 

“So we’re a Deis school in the inner city. Now I’m not big on labels – I don’t label the kids – but the whole initiative of Deis is to deliver equal opportunities,” says Meagher. 

But this is not equal… and it wouldn’t happen in other parts of societies, so it’s a postcode issue. Is it? That’s my perception of it, so I don’t know what else it could be. 

From justice to harm reduction 

Latest figures show that about one person a day died from drug overdose in Ireland in 2016 – with the vast majority of these in Dublin.

The sight of people injecting in alleyways and side streets is a common one when walking through the city centre. Discarded needles, bloody rags and other drug paraphernalia litter the streets in some of the cities worst hit areas.

heroin-10 A discarded needle in Dublin. Source: RollingNews.ie

In its National Drugs Strategy 2017-2025, the Irish government signals a shift from dealing with drug addiction through the justice system to supporting addicts from a harm-reduction, health-led perspective. 

Medically supervised injecting facilities (MSIFs) are a key part of this. About 120 or so exist in the world, with the first being opened in Switzerland in 1986. 

The provision of opening Ireland’s first MSIF is contained in the 2016 Programme for Government, which states:

We will support a health-led rather than criminal justice approach to drug use including legislating for injection rooms.

Following on from this, the Misuse of Drugs (Supervised Injecting Facilities) Act 2017, legislates for the centres, making possession of controlled substances while inside them legal. 

The opening of the first centre will be the culmination of years of consultation, research and lobbying work from organisations like Merchant’s Quay Ireland and the Ana Liffey Drug Project. 

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Essentially, the centres provide drug addicts with a safer, sterile environment in which to inject heroin, cocaine or others drugs under the supervision of a medical professional. Users source their own drugs and inject themselves in booths in the centre.

The presence of a healthcare professional reduces the risk of overdose. A common statistic quoted by those in favour of MSIFs is that no one has ever died of an overdose while inside one. 

Budget Day 2019 Minister of State with responsibility for Health Promotion and the National Drugs Strategy Catherine Byrne TD who is overseeing the introduction of the centres. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

The drug user is able to recover then in a designated area in the centre before leaving.

While inside, the idea is that they can make contact with healthcare and social supports if they wish, and be provided with advice and a point of contact that might otherwise not be available to them.

International research on the centres show that they help to reduce drug-related deaths in the areas where they are opened.

The best available data isn’t able to fully verify that they reduce drug related crime in areas where they are opened, but research finds that drug-related crime does not increase as a result of the centres being opened. 

Some studies show that social issues (like disposed syringes, public injecting) decrease as a result of an injecting centre opening, however the data is not comprehensive. 

In August 2017, the HSE put out a tender for an operator to open and manage a MSIF in Dublin city over an 18-month period as part of an independently-monitored pilot programme.

The tender was awarded to Merchant’s Quay Ireland (MQI) – the addiction support and homelessness service – in February of last year. 

Initially, it was planned that the MSIF could be opened at MQI’s Riverbank Centre – on the south quays close to St Audoen’s – without having to apply for planning permission from Dublin City Council. 

download (1) File photo of the Riverbank Centre. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

However, in late-2017, the Dublin Business Alliance (DBA) – which is a lobby group made up of the Licensed Vintners Association, the Restaurants Association and the Temple Bar Company – sought clarification from the council whether planning permission would be needed for the centre. 

The DBA is strongly opposed to the opening of the MSIF in the city centre.

Dublin City Council ruled that planning permission would be needed to open the MSIF, and in October of last year Merchant’s Quay lodged an application to open the centre at its Riverbank Centre. 

Community opposition 

In total, 99 objections were lodged against the opening of the MSIF at Merchant’s Quay by a wide range of concerned parties. 

As well as St Audoen’s, objections were lodged by local businesses (eg, pubs, restaurants, hostels, hotels and offices in the area), local residents, management companies of apartment buildings and parents with children in the school (among others).

The objections painted a bleak picture of Dublin’s south inner city and the streets and alleyways around Merchant’s Quay.

Anti-social behaviour, intimidation of staff and customers, robbery, public injecting, public defecation and open drug dealing are all listed as common issues for people living and working in the area.

All of the objectors are in agreement that there are already too many services operating in the inner city and that the opening of the MSIF will only compound and add to the issues they face.

There are concerns over how to police drug dealing in the area, especially considering gardaí have been told to use their discretion when monitoring people leaving and entering the centre. 

IMG_0784 The green area on Cook Street, where people frequently inject themselves. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

In December of last year, the council came back to MQI requesting additional information before it makes a decision on the application. 

MQI must submit a detailed operational plan for the centre (including a policing plan for the area) and must also submit a detailed assessment on why the centre won’t lead to an overconcentration of similar facilities in the area. 

TheJournal.ie contacted gardai in relation to the policing plan, but had received no response by the time of publication. 

St Audoen’s school

Walking through St Audoen’s on Thursday, the corridors are calm and quiet. In one room, a former pupil now teacher is in the middle of a gym class with enthusiastic pupils. 

There are about 200 students at the school, from preschool up to sixth class.

Through doorways, children can be seen learning in their classrooms. It seems like a normal day in a normal primary school, no different from any other across the country.

IMG_0763 A corridor in St Audoen's National School. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

But according to Meagher, because of where it’s located, St Audoen’s is different from other schools. In its objection to DCC, business lawyers representing the school point out the unique problems it faces:

“On a consistent basis all staff and children attending the National School witness drug addicts buying and injecting illegal drugs. This happens nowhere else in this State and cannot be consistent with the proper planning and development of the area,” the submission states.

Later, it is stated that gardaí from Kevin Street Station are regular attendees on Cook Street. 

There is not a school in the State that shares these problems.

The submission also contains two signed letters from child psychotherapists who have worked with the children of St Audoen’s for eight and 11 years – both stating that the normalisation of drug taking in the area was having a detrimental impact on the development of the children.  

IMG_0750 A large sign on the wall of the school. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

Meagher says that she and her staff work hard to cultivate an atmosphere of peacefulness and calm. She is deeply proud of the school, its record, and the work done by her staff.

While children are inside the school she says she can vouch for their safety “100%”.

“But what they can see in the community and what goes on around it, it’s traumatic,” she says. 

“The children do see incidents all the time because they happen on the street in front of them and they happen on the way to school and after school,” she says.

“They see myself and the deputy principal and the caretakers asking people to leave, moving people on. They have seen stuff, definitely.

The problem is when you see stuff once or twice you might be traumatised, but more than that, are you desensitised?  

No consultation 

Meagher says that since 2015 she has proactively been trying to get support from government and local politicians to have her concerns addressed, but says she has not been heeded.

She says that current Junior Minister for Drugs Catherine Byrne had promised consultation with her prior to the tender being awarded last year. 

“That never happened. So before the press release went out last year [announcing the awarding of the tender] they rang the school half and hour beforehand… We were on mid-term break so we weren’t here, and that was it,” she says. 

Meagher and the other objectors believe that the over concentration of drug services in the area (some objectors put the number at 16 to 18 drug treatment centres within 2km of Merchant’s Quay), plays a big part in the public order and social issues prevalent there. 

MQI has provided services in the area since 1989. In 2008, it consolidated its existing services into the Riverbank Centre on Merchant’s Quay, just behind Cook Street and St Audoen’s (this is where the planned MSIF will be located).

cook The distance between St Audoen's and where the MSIF will be located. Source: Google Maps

At the centre, MQI provide a wide range of homeless, primary healthcare and drug services. They have a Night Café in which up to 50 homeless people can sleep on mats on the ground. They have a needle exchange, provide meals seven days a week and have a wide range other services. 

Meagher believes that the service as it is has become too big, and draws people to the area who otherwise wouldn’t come. This, in turn, leads to increased public order and social issues like public injecting, drug dealing, violence and other anti-social behaviour. 

This is what’s known as the “honeypot” effect – the drawing of people to the area where the services are located. MQI strongly contests that its service draws people to the area. The charity says that it provides a service in response to the need that is already there. 

In the 18 years she has worked in the area, Meagher says the problems in the area have worsened. 

“It’s bigger. It’s on a larger scale. The volume of service users has obviously increased and the culture around drugs has changed in that time,” she says.

IMG_0769 Discarded drug paraphernalia near the school.

Meagher makes it clear that no violence or intimidation has ever been carried out on school officials or children, but that rather it is what the children witness going on that is harmful.  

She is also at pains to stress that she believes MQI and other drug treatment services do good work. She says she or the school have nothing against to idea of injecting centres in principal, but feels strongly that one should not be opened 300m from a primary school.

She feels that the current MQI service as it is is too big for the area, and again, should not be allowed to operate so close to the school, where the safety of children is of paramount importance.

“There’s always going to be illegal drug use, there’s always going to be addiction, there’s always going to be a need for addiction services,” she says. 

“If the Department of Health tell me this service is needed, and an injecting room is needed right beside the service – who am I to argue with that?

That’s their policy, that’s their expertise. But my expertise is of my students and this street and my time here.

“And it’s impacting them negatively, and it is going to impact negatively if the service is increased.”

The injecting room 

Later on Thursday, in the early afternoon, Derek Parker walks through the basement of the Riverbank Centre on Merchant’s Quay wearing a hard hat.

The basement is yet to be developed, with exposed concrete walls and no flooring. If planning permission is granted, it will be where the injecting centre is built. 

Parker – who worked for years as psychiatrist nurse and a community addictions nurse – is the project coordinator for the MSIF. 

IMG_0794 The area where the injecting centre is due to be built. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

No construction can begin on the facility until planning permission is granted, but Parker points out the different areas and what will be there if the centre gets the go-ahead. 

Clients will queue off the street to the side of the Riverbank Centre on the Quays, before entering the facility. There will be a reception and waiting area, consultation rooms and seven injecting booths, as well as an area where people can recover after. 

People will pass through the centre before exiting and leaving from the other side of the building and back onto the Quays.

MQI projects that the centre will cater for up to 60 people a day. The pilot programme will last for 18 months and be independently monitored in that time.

Parker is passionate about the project and fully believes that it will help not only to reduce deaths by overdose and increase the quality of life of intravenous drug users in Dublin, but that it will also have a positive effect on the community.

One study of MSIFs found an 80% reduction in discarded syringes in Barcelona between 2004 and 2012.

While the data on reductions in crime and public order issues isn’t comprehensive, the best evidence indicates that there is no increase in these as a result of an injecting centre opening.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie after the tour of the facility, Parker says that he understands the fears and concerns of the school and the wider community.

“We respect their opinion. We can understand if people have some anxiety around this facility,” he says. 

I suppose when you hear the phrase or the term ‘injecting facility’ there’s a fear of the unknown there. 

Parker says that MQI engages with St Audoen’s and the community “on a daily basis”.

“We are putting our message out there that there is no evidence of any increase in crime or antisocial behaviour around these facilities,” he says. 

parker Derek Parker on a tour of the proposed injecting facility. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

The current situation, where people are people are exposed to public injecting is “unacceptable”, according to Parker. 

“I suppose the current situation is that children are exposed to public injecting, they are exposed to anti-social behaviour,” he says. 

“We see this facility as providing an alternative. The current situation is unacceptable, we accept that.

This will improve the situation by providing those who are publicly injecting a place to go and do so.

Honeypot

Parker also strongly disagrees with claims that people are attracted to the area because of the services offered – the “honeypot” effect.  

“There is again no evidence of a honey pot effect in these facilities,” he says. 

“Merchant’s Quay developed its services – we started here in 1989 – our services started and developed as a response to the issue with drugs and the inner city in this part of the city.

“The problem didn’t arise because we were here. We developed our services here in response to the problems.

Merchant’s Quay has a responsibility to the people who use the service and the community of which we’re part of. And we’re very much aware of that.

Parker says that MQI supports thousands of people every year through homelessness and addiction across all of its services.

“Again, I do not believe that the problem in this area is because of Merchant’s Quay,” he says.

I believe that Merchant’s Quay services have developed in response to the issues with homelessness and addiction not just in this part of the city, but across the country.

He says that he is confident that the injecting centre will help not just the service users, but the entire community, and points to one case of a centre in Paris which is close to seven schools.

The schools were initially worries about the centre being opened, he says, but later came to support it more.

‘Mind boggling’ 

At St Audoen’s, Eilish Meagher looks out the window of her office and into the park and the 40 Steps, where she has seen so many people inject themselves over the years. 

IMG_0772

On Thursday morning, the steps are closed, but are due reopen later in the day with a public ceremony. Meagher says she’s never seen the area so clean, but wonders how long it will be before people are injecting there again.

She and the other objectors to the plan are convinced that the injecting centre will only exacerbate the problems of the area, increase anti-social behaviour, and further jeopardise the development and safety of the children of St Audoen’s.

Should the council grant permission for the facility later this year, it will almost certainly be appealed to An Bord Pleanála. 

For Meagher, the issues she has are summed up by recent laws and campaigns aiming to increase the safety of children in schools. She talks about a large alcohol advertisement that can be seen from the school.

Under the new laws, it will soon be illegal to advertise for alcohol within 200m of a school. Meagher also talks about the ongoing No Fry Zones campaigns, to stop fast food restaurants being built within a certain distance of schools.

A recent objection to a fast food restaurant being built 300m from a school in Skerries received widespread political support from TDs, senators and councillors – support that Meagher says is lacking for St Audoen’s.

“All these [councils] are meant to be implementing these No Fry Zones and there’s massive support. It’s mind-boggling,” she says.

I mean, if these are going to negatively impact children, how can people tell me that frequent drug use and buying and sell drugs isn’t going to negatively impact the same children in that environment?

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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