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26 March 2009 Edition

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Focus on Ballymena drugs blight


BALLYMENA, once best-known for being in the heartland of Ian Paisley and the home town of Hollywood actor Liam Neeson, has been dubbed by the media in recent years as “the drugs capital of the North”.
It is against this backdrop that the local Roger Casement Sinn Féin cumann and Sinn Féin MLA Daithí McKay last week organised a public meeting with a near-capacity attendance of 100 people in the Ballymena North Centre to hear expert groups working with people affected by drugs, councillors and the police.
The panel included representatives from The Hope Centre, Railway Street Addiction Service, the Housing Executive, and the Falls Community Council.
Introducing the event, Sinn Féin MLA Daithí McKay said the public response showed the extent of how drugs was blighting the lives of people in Ballymena and County Antrim.
Des Flanagan, from the Railway Street Addiction Services in Ballymena, described what Ballymena has been through in recent years as “an orgy of human misery caused by drug abuse”.

Three out four people receiving treatment for heroin addiction in the Northern Health & Social Services Board area are from the Ballymena Borough

Each of the panelists, including the PSNI, gave a five-minute presentation and the meeting was opened up to a questions-and-answers session from the floor.
The Q&A part lasted for more than two hours, throwing a startling insight into the drugs problem.
Most questions related to the criminal justice system and how it could be maximised to remove drug dealers from the equation. Many also asked about the treatment of those caught up in drug addiction. Others enquired if there was enough resources locally to deal with the problem.
Pádraig McShane, a local Sinn Féin representative, asked if it is accurate to suggest that Ballymena had the most heroin users in the North.
Des Flanagan, of Railway Street Addiction Services, said that figures he has answered by saying that three out four people receiving treatment for heroin addiction in the Northern Health & Social Services Board (NHSSB) area are from the Ballymena Borough. He also added that the NHSSB has more clients receiving treatment for addiction than any other Health Board and that 94 per cent of this treatment was for heroin addiction.
The prevalence of crack cocaine was also raised by Pádraig McShane. He said he has figures which showed that during the year 2007/2008, 40 people had been receiving treatment for crack cocaine addiction in the North, 29 of whom were from the NHSSB area. “Does this now represent a crack cocaine problem in the area?” he asked. A community drugs outreach worker answered by saying that the concentration of crack cocaine abuse in the North was in the Ballymena area. She added that she had completed a survey on drug taking in the North but had to leave Ballymena out of the report as it completely skewed the picture!
The head of the PSNI Drugs Squad, Gary Clarke, was asked if Ballymena had the worst drug problem in the North. He said it does have a particular heroin problem but he was not in a position to say what area was the worst.
Pádraig McShane interjected, saying he has figures which indicate that 5,200 visits were made to the needle exchange clinics in the NHSSB area and that when clients used the service they had to register their postcodes; at least 4,200 visits were from clients with Ballymena area postcodes.

A community drugs outreach worker said the concentration of crack cocaine abuse in the North was in the Ballymena area
Speaking after the meeting, Sinn Féin’s Pádraig McShane said:
“The audience and the panel both deserve congratulations tonight for their input into what was a passionate and emotional debate. From our own point of view, we felt it was very important to have this debate in a public forum where local people had a chance to have their say.
“Sinn Féin recognises that to deal effectively with the drugs issue in the Ballymena area it will take a multi-agency task force working in complete partnership. Those working to minimise the damage of drugs misuse in our communities need to be guaranteed proper financial resources for the foreseeable future.”
He added that there needs to be recognition given to the fact that the police are under-strength to deal with the problem in the Ballymena area. If the police require more resources, they should be supported in their efforts to obtain them, he said.
“Sinn Féin also knows that there are approximately 10 major drug dealers in the Ballymena area. Without a proper criminal justice system to deal rigorously with those who destroy our communities by selling this poison, we will just see one dealer replace another. I appeal to anyone with information on these criminals to bring that evidence to the police.”
Although there is a major problem, Pádraig McShane said, he was keen to point out that many parts of Ballymena are completely free from illegal drugs abuse. “Ballymena has a lot to offer but, for the sake of many of its citizens, civic society must face up to and admit the problem on its doorstep. Then and only then can we all work in proper partnership to tackle this blight on the community.”

FORUM:  Des Flanagan (Railway Street Addiction Service), Gary Clarke (PSNI Drugs Squad), Fra Stone (Falls Community Council, Belfast), Inspector Barbara Gray (PSNI), Trish Cathcart (The Hope Centre), Eric Woods (Housing Executive), Benny Lynch (Falls Community Council),  and Sinn Féin MLA Daithí McKay

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