Belfast Telegraph

Lindy McDowell: How a young girl’s conversation on a bus highlights our growing problem of drug abuse

Ian Paisley
Ian Paisley

By Lindy McDowell

The girl getting on to our bus had just had a row with a friend. We, her fellow passengers, knew this because she was on the phone telling another friend all about it. Very, very LOUDLY.

I'm always up for a bit of eavesdropping myself. And there was no difficulty making out what was being said here.

She was going at it full volume, appealing for reassurance that what the ex-friend had said was totally, totally out of order. (We never got to hear what the ex-friend had said. Sadly.)

Further analysis of the set-to did go on a bit.

Eventually the girl got round to asking her friend on the other end of the phone how she was feeling.

"You stoned?" she inquired chattily. "Aye, me too."

I think it fair to say this disclosure did not come as a great shock to her audience. We'd already worked that one out. Some more small talk and then she asked the other girl: "You want me to get you something on the way up?"

Short pause.

"Yellas? What ones?"

The girl on the other end supplied the required details and then obviously asked where the aforementioned yellas would be sourced and how much they would cost.

Our fellow passenger cheerfully, if a little indiscreetly, boomed out the name of her intended supplier.

And the price?

Strangely for the first time in the conversation she dropped her voice a bit. "Twenty quid."

Maybe this was a bargain price for yellas and she wanted to keep it to herself.

She said she had to go now as her stop was coming up.

"Stay safe," she shouted. It struck me as an odd salutation. But then...

"No!" she suddenly yelled into the phone. "Do not! I'm telling you, stay safe, stay safe. Don't be taking that stuff."

She went on some more, chiding her friend, warning her.

When she'd first got on the bus bellowing her business to the rest of us I'll admit I found it amusing.

Suddenly it wasn't.

Suddenly it was just this sweet-natured girl showing her concern for a friend, a drug-user like herself but one who was now considering moving on to harder stuff.

A sad glimpse into a local drug culture that is at once both scary and unremarkable.

Drug taking, drug misuse in Northern Ireland is at epidemic proportions. And the visible (and in this case audible) evidence is everywhere.

Walk through Belfast city centre - and a fair few other city and town centres - and you can see on any day of the week, people obviously out of it on drugs, alcohol or more likely a combination of both.

It's heartbreaking.

Addicts get in bother with the police. They're brought before the courts. They get jail. They're freed.

But they don't get free. Okay, maybe some are able to break out of that particularly vicious circle. But for others the circle evolves into an ever downward spiral.

Putting people in prison isn't working. In many cases it's making matters worse.

And not all drug users are dependent on the illegal options or on alcohol, the most common option. Increasingly, as health chiefs have recently warned, it's prescription drugs.

The lessons from America's opioid crisis are only slowly being learned on this side of the Atlantic.

Economists have a saying about how when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. In terms of drug misuse that saying has its own apt and alarming resonance.

So how do we tackle what is undoubtedly now a crisis in Northern Ireland? Various strategies have been suggested. Some are controversial - legalisation or decriminalisation, the provision of drug consumption rooms.

But what is starkly clear is that the drugs epidemic in Northern Ireland should be a top priority for government here.

In the absence of Stormont though, even top priorities count for nothing.

Charlie Mack from the charity Extern put it well in a recent newspaper interview when he said: "We urgently need to begin to have a serious, honest and courageous conversation about how, as a society, we are going to best support people living with chronic drug dependency."

We certainly need to do better than just exhorting them to "Stay safe".

NI needs to sell itself better

I think we can all agree that Ian Paisley Jnr might have found a more diplomatic way of suggesting that the local tourism industry put more thought into ways of attracting visitors to Northern Ireland.

Mr Paisley says he feels an "aggressive marketing strategy" may be in order.

And when he says aggressive, he means aggressive.

Noting that Dublin has been enthusiastically (and rightly) promoting itself to tourists arriving up here - via airport advertising and the like - he says: "I'm just wondering, should we have an aggressive marketing strategy that says whenever you get off a plane in Dublin, 'Visit Derry, visit Belfast, visit the Causeway, why aren't you going north?' and put it right back in their face?

"Why don't we have an aggressive strategy that tells every single Irish-American in Dublin, 'You're in the wrong part of the island, you need to be up north?'"

His comments have, needless to say, raised hackles.

Mr Paisley makes it sound as if he's proposing going after tourists arriving down south like a big game hunter in pursuit of a herd of wildebeest.

That said, he does have a point about how Northern Ireland could and should be making more effort to capitalise on island-wide tourism by extolling the delights and television show sites that await them this side of the border.

But you do this not by telling them that they're in the wrong part of the island down south. But by telling them that there's another equally great part up here.

To do that though requires funding. Aggressive marketing campaigns generally do.

Tourism is now one of our biggest industries. And it requires major investment not just from private operators and business owners, particularly in the hospitality industry. But from government.

Ian Paisley is right about the need to sell ourselves better. He could get the ball rolling by being a whole lot less "in their face" about Dublin.

We need to welcome not just the tourists coming through Dublin. But also the tourists coming from Dublin.

They’re now quaking on the border

There's been talk of a hard border. A soft border. And now we have a shaky one. An earthquake in Co Donegal was felt across the border in Co Fermanagh. It was seismic in one sense, but not so much in another. The quake measured a mere 2.1 in magnitude. We are lucky in this part of the world that earthquakes are so mild. According to an expert, they're also rare. "In 40 years we have only recorded around 200 earthquakes," he says. 200! Is that not quite a lot?

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