Wednesday 18 September 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'We're all Nimbys to a degree but some are better at how they put it'

Residents who objected to a methadone clinic at their local health centre just did what most of us would do, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Madigan: Under attack again
Madigan: Under attack again

Eilis O'Hanlon

Josepha Madigan is developing an uncanny knack for making headlines. Unfortunately for the Fine Gael Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, it's for all the wrong reasons.

No sooner was she beginning, barely, to get out from under the shadow of "SwingGate" than the former solicitor was back under attack for declaring, in a newsletter to constituents, that she was "pleased to inform" them the local health centre would not house a new methadone clinic.

Madigan denies authorising that precise wording, but has been strongly criticised anyway - as, to a lesser extent, has Minister for Transport Shane Ross, who also represents Rathdown, and who mentioned the decision in a regular Facebook update.

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Some of the furore is beyond ridiculous. Ross was simply informing constituents that it wouldn't happen. He didn't make any other comment about it - positive or otherwise. Is basic information suddenly offensive now?

Madigan's case is more curious. She did sign the letter that she now claims not to have approved. People really should read things before they sign them. The insistence on her behalf that she didn't personally lobby against the methadone clinic also sits uneasily alongside the statement in the newsletter that the decision was taken "following representations from my office to the Department of Health". How fortunate she didn't read the final version, or that could have been awkward.

Suffice to say, it's not a good look. There have long been question marks over TDs, and ministers especially, pulling strings to get favourable treatment, usually extra funding, for their own constituencies.

That kind of parish pump politics has its good and bad sides. The good is that it creates a bond between elected representatives and those they represent. Local residents should feel their TD can make a difference, otherwise why bother voting for them at all?

The bad side is that it gives an unfair advantage to certain elected representatives at the expense of other, less powerful TDs' constituents. Methadone clinics are a salient example.

They have to be on someone's doorstep. Those pulling strings simply manage to ensure that it's not theirs. That said, it would be sanctimonious piffle to criticise people in Ballinteer for not wanting one next door. Who would?

It's back to that age-old gap between what people privately think, and what they're allowed publicly to say. People must be entitled to have input into what goes on in their own lives without being chided for not being more welcoming. Their fears may be based on misunderstanding. Addicts who want to get clean may need alternative medication to ease the effects of opioid withdrawal, and reducing their dependence on illegal drugs not only helps those people and their families, by cutting deaths from overdoses and increasing their ability to hold down a steady job, it also cuts crime overall.

There have been plenty of justified criticisms of that optimistic theory, not least that many junkies just use methadone to "top up", as it were, while still using and dealing illegal drugs. Many sell methadone on the streets, because, as one user told reporters a decade ago, "they don't give out enough, so people want more".

There will always be users who want more than they can afford or be given for free, and they'll find a supply somehow.

Studies of whether crime increases around clinics, as frequently claimed, is mixed. It does seem logical that a place where addicts are free to congregate would encourage all manner of misdemeanours; but not all addicts are stereotypical junkies shooting up in alleyways. Many have found themselves addicted to prescription drugs after personal or medical crises, and may appear unremarkable.

The point remains. It's not unreasonable for people to have concerns about suddenly finding themselves in the proximity of clinics with such a negative reputation, especially at a health centre used by families with small children. There are some things they shouldn't have to see. Everybody remembers what happened to the Liffey boardwalk when it opened with a fanfare. In no time it became a focal point for antisocial behaviour.

Dismissing those who express fears about the possible deterioration of their neighbourhoods as small-minded champions of Nimby (Not In My Back Yard) thinking is unwarranted.

We're all Nimbys, to some degree. It's just that different communities are motivated by different concerns. One doesn't want a walk-in needle-sharing clinic, or a local hotel turned over to refugees. Another doesn't want a new development of apartments in Bulloch Harbour because it threatens the character of the area. Some of these are regarded as more acceptable than others, but they all come from the same impulse - a desire to keep the place where you live safe from changes which could potentially ruin what makes it a desirable place to live.

The only variance is in how that's expressed. There is plenty of what's known as "left Nimbyism", where change is opposed for supposedly progressive reasons. Some activists don't like gentrification of working-class neighbourhoods on the grounds that it will alienate long-standing residents or increase the price of property out of their reach down the line. All that's considered acceptable.

Similarly if you oppose road building from an environmental standpoint, or try to stop fast-food outlets opening in your leafy suburb by expressing fears that it will increase childhood obesity.

Take these stances, and one will probably be praised as a caring, responsible citizen.

Dare to object to the presence of a methadone clinic or a halting site, on the other hand, and you'll be howled down as a heartless monster.

There's a reason why facilities for drug addicts are never in the most exclusive districts. It's because the people who live there know how to protest while keeping themselves on the right side of political correctness. They don't even have to keep undesirables out of their areas most of the time, since house prices ensure that only the "right" sort of people get in anyway. They still look down their noses at people in less fortunate neighbourhoods for not merrily throwing open their doors to junkies.

Addicts need, and are entitled to, help, but it shouldn't be at the expense of sympathy for those who have to deal with the negative consequences of their addiction. That includes victims of petty crime, which is rarely petty to victims. It also includes Josepha Madigan's constituents who might, had this decision gone against them, have been reluctantly forced into proximity with a methadone clinic. She may deny being "pleased" about it, but they most certainly are.

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