John Masterson: 'Lost lives... Out of sight and out of mind'

Former US Senator George Mitchell Picture: Gerry Mooney

John Masterson

I was walking around the O'Connell Street area recently and was surprised by how many drunk or drugged people I saw. These were people with multiple problems - and neither the present nor the future looked good for them.

Daily we read of people like these before the courts with huge numbers of theft convictions clocked up to feed their addictions.

The judge has few options. They can be put in jail where they might come out a little healthier than they went in, but will most likely return to the life they had left. Or the judge can give them one more chance and the person being charged will make all the promises under the sun that they will get their life back on track.

I spent enough time in the company of drug addicts in the course of journalism to see up close how manipulative people in that situation can be. The ones that do clean up are the rare exceptions.

Some are released because they have a child to care for. It is not unusual to see people who are clearly unable to parent walking the streets with several youngsters. The next time many of these people will feature in the news will be because of a row that got out of control, or a night when they overdosed. We will hear about their dreadful circumstances and how they never had a chance.

I don't really buy that. That said, the children, are definitely not being given a fair chance.

I listened to a remarkable interview with George Mitchell on Second Captains Live recently. I had no idea the former US Senator came from such humble circumstances. His father was 'adopted' by a Lebanese family in a take-a-child-home line-up after Mass. His mother was also Lebanese and when she arrived in the US she had little or no English. Mitchell did not remember his parents ever having a holiday. They did not have a car. What they had was a work ethic and a belief in the value of education.

I have visited Russian orphanages with Debbie Deegan, founder of To Russia with Love. The charity brought education, colour and love to a large number of children. Most of these children had a parent, or parents, but the state intervened to save the children from parents with multiple problems.

The state did not do a great job in the early days but, with a little money and a lot of care, the orphanages Debbie worked with were transformed. The successes the children, many now in their 30s, went on to would not have happened without this Irish charity. Many would have drifted into crime, prostitution or drugs. The vast majority have grown up to be productive happy citizens, and many are now parents.

I do not want people with multiple addictions jailed. It merely removes them from our sight for a while. Nor do I want them returning to a chaotic life and raising children badly. I do know that children are removed from their parents for their own safety, but just walk the streets and you will see many young parents that clearly cannot parent. I do know that many foster parents make a great impact on children who have come from difficult circumstances.

We need a massive targeted intervention programme to give these people some chance of turning their lives around. It is hard to propose drastic solutions without sounding like Chairman Mao's re-education camps and their impositions on freedom. People who are in the grip of drugs are not in any real sense free. They are destroying their own lives and damaging all around them. I like to think that if I was in that situation I would be taken by the scruff of the neck to somewhere like the Curragh until I had got clean, healthy, and learned a skill that could support me before moving to a halfway house and finally becoming a citizen again.

I think I would say "thank you".