A high price of wealth

Observations on Ireland

A small speedboat accident off the coast of Cork early this month led to the Republic of Ireland's largest-ever drugs haul. Sixty bales carrying €105m (£71m) worth of cocaine were recovered from the sea, but as the boat tipped a mile offshore in rough weather, the real amount could actually be much higher.

Most of the cargo appears to have been bound for the UK, but the incident highlights a growing problem in Ireland itself, where the quantity of cocaine seized in the past four years has jumped by 750 per cent. The country has Europe's fastest-rising death rate due to illegal drugs.

Perversely, Ireland's newfound peace and prosperity may have fuelled the illicit trade. Boosted by EU cash, liberal market reforms and the decline of the IRA, the country's wealth grew at a dizzying pace in the 1990s. Between 1995 and 1999 Ireland had the fastest-growing economy in the developed world. Last year GDP grew at triple the rate of the eurozone average.

But this leap meant that cocaine was suddenly affordable to a lot more people; use of the drug - which is not stigmatised as crack cocaine and heroin are - has skyrocketed. There are now about 75,000 cocaine users in Ireland, according to Jim O'Keeffe, justice spokesman for the opposition Fine Gael.

At the same time, a powerful deterrent against distributing the drug has disappeared. In the old days neighbourhood vigilantes - the "sort of people who'd done 20 years in prison for blowing up half of London" - would straighten out the dealers themselves, says John Mooney, the Sunday Times correspondent and author of several books on organised crime. "They'd grab some drug dealer, kidnap him, hide him for two or three days and torture him, and that would be that."

Mooney, who often worked undercover, has seen victims tied to kitchen tables and interrogated. "It used to be a cyclical event," he reminisces. "Every six or seven years when drugs were getting out of hand, communities and paramilitaries would react and kill a whole load of drug dealers." There were big clampdowns, he says, in 1989, 1995 - "but then it never really happened again. And lots of the same people who used to take the law into their own hands are on community boards now, running for elections."

Tough measures have been brought in to combat the trade, but the law will never be able to provide the same disincentive as the old system did. "You couldn't get legal aid when the paramilitaries decided you're no good," Mooney points out. "When Joey down the road was armed with an AK-47, the best lawyers that money could buy you weren't going to help."

To make current matters worse, the street value of cocaine has plummeted by almost 25 per cent in the past two years, making it an option now for people from all social backgrounds.

"When I went in [to prison] in 1996, cocaine was a white-collar drug, only for the rich," says Robbie, formerly a homeless heroin addict, who did seven years for burglary. "But when I got out, it was rampant - on the streets, where anyone can get their hands on it. Especially younger people."

At present the Irish health system has no services geared specifically towards cocaine abuse, and a health department recruitment freeze is making matters worse. "It's very frustrating," says Eamon Keenan, a consultant psychiatrist and director of the Drug Treatment Centre Board in Dublin.

Instead of getting treatment, drug users often get locked into a system of revolving doors, going in and out of prison. Eddie, 35, who has been in Mountjoy in Dublin three times, says that drugs are more readily available there than anywhere else. One of his friends who used to be "totally against drugs" acquired a habit in jail, and the guards turn a blind eye to it, he says, because "people who are stoned don't kick off so much".

"There's an old saying that a rising tide lifts all boats," says Tony Duffin, director of the Ana Liffey Drug Project, a treatment and support centre based in Dublin. "But I'm yet to see that with this so-called Celtic tiger."

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Chavez: from hero to tyrant