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North must learn from Dublin's catastrophic epidemic says priest

When heroin hit Dublin in the 1980s it devastated the capital for two decades. The dealing, which began with one criminal family, led to one-in-10 young people in central Dublin taking the drug. Crime soared, HIV spread and deaths were commonplace. Southern Correspondent Valerie Robinson hears why Belfast should fear the arrival of heroin

BELFAST-born social justice campaigner fr Peter McVerry has urged the authorities to "get in fast" to combat the introduction of heroin. Fr McVerry, who works with Dublin's homeless and drug addicts, said the north must learn from city's catastrophic heroin epidemic of the 1980s.

When the newly-ordained cleric was first sent to Dublin there was "not a whiff" of heroin during the mid-1970s.

However, in less than a decade the drug had taken hold among the impoverished inner-city communities, destroying entire families.

Heroin had first begun to flood europe after the ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the shah of Iran in 1979 and soviet troops invaded Afghanistan a year later. Some of those fleeing the Middle east had converted their valuables into heroin for resale in europe. The Dublin-based Dunne family, who had a long history of criminality, saw a business opportunity and began importing heroin from amsterdam on a massive scale.

Initially, the Dunnes focused their sales in inner-city flat complexes which were unemployment black-spots and where children left school as young as 12. "Heroin spread like wildfire. People probably felt that they could feel miserable for 24 hours without heroin or, if they took heroin, they could feel miserable for 12 hours," fr McVerry said.

Crime rates in affected areas soared as addicts burgled strangers' homes and stole from their own families to feed their habit. Jewellery was a favourite with addicts, particularly as the Dunnes were willing to accept it in lieu of cash. Figures from the Jervis street Drug Centre for 1984 showed that 21 per cent of new clients had been using drugs for at least seven years prior to seeking help. Eighty five per cent had needle marks from injecting heroin. The use of needles brought another problem - the spread of deadly diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. By 1986, a sample of 398 intravenous drug users at the facility revealed that 27 per cent were positive for the HIV virus. Many of those affected by heroin were teens and young adults, with a 1983 study by the Medico-social Research Board revealing that in central Dublin 10 per cent of young people aged 15 to 24 had used the drug during the previous 12 months, many injecting.

Heroin and HIV "wiped out entire families" during the 1980s, said fr McVerry, who witnessed the effects first-hand on the people he worked with on a daily basis. The Irish government's lack of urgency in addressing the crisis led to angry communities setting up vigilante groups to target known drug dealers.

During an infamous 1996 incident, convicted drug dealer and aids sufferer Joseph Dwyer (41) was battered to death with baseball bats by a mob close to the Guinness brewery. His wife had previously died of aids. The Dunnes were eventually put out of business by the Garda drugs squad and their own addiction to the drugs they sold. However, the damage they started 30 years ago is still felt today.

Research published two years ago found that two thirds of a group of addicts studied in the 1980s by trinity researchers were now dead. Of 82 users who had agreed to be studied, 51 had died by 2010, half of them due to HIV related illness while a third of the survivors were HIV positive. Fr McVerry last night warned that while no longer at epidemic levels heroin remains a problem drug for Dublin and has spread to other cities and large towns.

He added that people were also now increasingly using crack cocaine, which made them more aggressive and was more expensive than heroin, as well as crystal meth. "My message to the [northern] government would be to get in quick and get treatment facilities in place so that addicts who want help can get proper treatment. "When the government [in Dublin] finally started to act there was a nine-month waiting list for treatment, which meant that people were dying before they got treatment or they were spreading the problem by dealing heroin," he said.

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