With drug deaths spiralling, just what is our proconsul doing? – Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

What has Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris done to improve our lives?
What has Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris done to improve our lives?

DRUG deaths in the north are shockingly high. A recent report from QUB, pulling together figures from various sources, showed that drug deaths here are more than five times the average for the EU: 11.5 per 100,000 compared to 1.8 per 100,000.

Furthermore, young people 25-34 are worst affected. A 2022 report by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency found that the most deprived 20% of areas in the north have the highest rate of drug-related deaths, and people living in those areas were "almost five times more likely to die from a drug-related death than those in the least deprived areas".

Poverty, poor education, unemployment, poor prospects play the major role. Some suggest inter-generational trauma from the legacy of the Troubles in these districts plays a part, but those under 34 have no direct experience of the Troubles.

Damage by Conservative government

A more telling explanation is that it’s no coincidence that drug use and drug deaths have increased enormously since 2011. In the case of deaths from illegal drugs the figure has trebled in the past decade. It’s no coincidence because since 2011 this place has been seriously damaged by the Conservative government and its unnecessary destructive policy of austerity.

Now, after the Conservatives wrecked the UK economy, a new period of austerity – absurdly denied by Sunak’s wretched government – is going to be inflicted on people.

Read more:

  • Drugs deaths in Northern Ireland almost trebled in a decade, report shows
  • North Belfast father issues warning to young people about risks of drugs
  • Drugs flooding Northern Ireland: Organised crime groups 'prey upon and exploit most vulnerable in society'

What is going to be done to address the drugs problem? Nothing. The people who work in this area of self-harm have various plans and projects to deal with the problem but they have no money. There is a Dept of Health 10-year strategy to deal with drug abuse here but its funding is £6 million a year short. Treatment centres, such as they are, have been starved of funds or closed.

The appalling increase in drug deaths and widespread drug abuse is only the most striking evidence of the effect of 13 years of this British government. It is about to get worse.

Young people aged 25-34 are worst affected by drug abuse
Young people aged 25-34 are worst affected by drug abuse

Partition has hurt the north

For decades the north of Ireland has been the poorest part of the UK and Ireland because of partition. The north sits at the top or bottom of every index of poverty, whichever is the worst place to be. For that reason it has always been regarded as a special case, receiving extra Exchequer money particularly for health and social services.

Not any more. For years now the north has been falling behind. The notion of parity in salaries has gone, which explains strikes by nurses, classroom assistants, school bus drivers, teachers and many others. The starting salary for a teacher is £24,137 here. It’s £30,000 in England. In the south it’s £33,735. That’s a huge and growing gap.

Read more:

  • Brian Feeney: This place is in terminal decline and soon we'll realise that nothing works
  • Brian Feeney: Failing Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris has the easiest job in Westminster
  • Brian Feeney: What planet is our proconsul Heaton-Harris on?

It's an illustration that living standards have fallen further here than anywhere else and across the UK real income fell on average £1,900 since 2019. Standards will fall further. Weekly earnings won’t recover their 2008 level until 2028. There’s going to be a cut in real terms in public spending per person of 14% between now and 2027-28. And so on and so on.

Useless proconsul

Enough of the figures. Here’s what you have to ask. Our useless proconsul is in charge of this place. What has he done to improve it, to enhance people’s lives? Nothing. Why not? All he has done is emerge from doorways to repeat to microphones that there are still ‘gaps’ in his pretend negotiations with the DUP, from which he has excluded the majority of public representatives. Mind you, it’s quite likely they’re kept in the dark because there’s nothing to throw any light on.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris
Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris

Notwithstanding that, why do the other excluded ones allow him to get away with impoverishing people here? It used to be that before this government in 2010, proconsuls would announce they had successfully argued that the north should be treated as a special case and given more money because of the exigencies partition causes. Extraordinarily, this guy argues that the north should be given less because the irrational policies of his government which he enthusiastically promoted have caused the local administration to collapse.

His behaviour is a dereliction of basic political duty. Politics is supposed to improve people’s lives and politicians are supposed to argue for and implement those improvements. Remarkably this proconsul, representing no one here, is inflicting collective punishment on people in the poorest part of the UK because of his failed appeasement of the political minority he and his volatile amigo shafted, the DUP.

No wonder there’s a direct correlation between the duration of this government and the rise of drug abuse.