Frankie McKillen, writing from first hand observation, gives his take on the drugs problem in Belfast.
The phoney drug war. A war Irish Republican's are simply dealing with the fall out from, a war miles away, a war they didn't start, ask for, need and have nothing to gain from.
This piece started out as a comment in my head to Patrick Donohue's piece on TPQ and grew partly because of a Sky News interview. The original comment was along the lines, “ I still think is is very well written, fact checked, but the title I didn't like. I find it misleading.” Maybe that was deliberate. I can't buy into argument that..”it is time for Republicans to rethink their destructive war on drugs”.. Short version in the space between my ears is … The drug war is a war Irish Republicans didn't start, play little part in, fund and if they are involved in a drug war then why don't the maths (body count) add up showing Irish Republicans in a drug war.
A few day ago I was in a friends house, having a spliff and a coffee talking football. Sky News was on and a report about how opioid addiction has doubled since 2001, flashed across the screen. While I was listening to my friend, I half listened to a Professor or Doctor being interviewed about opioid addiction. He explained he is an opioid addict and knows if he takes an extra one or three now and then, he is buzzing. But has enough discipline and medical knowledge to stop himself going over the edge. He also talked about how everyone has to seriously look at how we have arrived at this mess. He was asking questions and offering solutions, similar to how France weaned a generation from heroin in the 1980's & 90's.
Allow me to take you down a rabbit hole for a paragraph or three...
As conspiratorial some of this may sound, all I know is my mind is sound. Most reports on the rise of drug related deaths like the Sky News report use 1999-2001 as a cut off point. We all know where we were on the 11th Sept. 2001. What about the day before? The day when the other Donald told the world that there is 2.3 trillion missing. The following day there was 9/11 and the rest is history. This is a conversation of what 2.3 trillion looks like today. As Alfred McCoy from the Guardian points out, 16 yrs later and 1 trillion spent of western intervention Afghanistan is officially the worlds first narco state. And according to wiki, in 2007 the heroin wholesale was worth $64 billion to the US market. Most coming from Afghan but some across the Mexican border.
In 2012 when every news channel was talking about wars on terror, Netflix was showing the first few episodes of Narcos and how two DEA agents took down Pablo on a roof top. At the same time HSBC was quietly laundering not only EL Chapos drug money they quietly cleaned billions for other cartels as well and the whole cabal was on board until they became too greedy and sloppy or both. They got caught laundering 365 billion of narco dollars. No one will ever know how much they got away with. Ed Vulliany who a wrote a great piece in the Guardian said, HSBC's apology treats everyone with contempt. What partly got Ed rightly pissed off was after being put on "5 yrs banking probation'' for being caught laundering untold billions of narco dollars and only being fined $1.9 Billion. HSBC simply said “Lets draw a line under it and move on." And everyone done just that and acted if nothing had happened.
My take goes like this … Just after Iran-Contra was exposed, a few Mexicans moved in to fill the void and HSBC happily continued to launder South American narco dollars like nothing had happened. Because the Mexicans didn't give the cabal their cut in a brown enveloped like the old Cali cartel would, the cabal got pissed off and basically put EL Chapo on a show trial as an example to anyone else who refuses to pay.. And then someone in the cabal done some maths and they all decided the best way to recover their loses from HSBC's links to El Chapo,& Co. was to have another phoney war, away from prying eyes and they chose Afghanistan, The cabal soon discovered even with the cost of the war on terror factored in, they were still making money and as an added bonus heroin was cheaper and better grade in Afghanistan than Chapo's.
Back to reality...
Today when I read reports how getting heroin in Belfast is as easy as getting cigarettes. Knowing what I know about wars on terror, it doesn't shock me that not only heroin but others drugs are readily available at the end of phone app in Belfast. The thing that shocked me the most being back on the island is the sheer amount of drugs available per head. If Belfast had the same population as London or New York then the UN would have stepped in a long time ago. The populations between the six counties and Birmingham are more or less the same between 1.7-8 million people each. If the same numbers of drug related deaths were on the streets of Birmingham, Westminster would be forced to cancel Brexit talks and have a COBRA meeting and find out WTF is happening in Britain's 2nd largest city.
When I lived in a hostel on the Sandy Row (for a little over 2 yrs), I saw up close how very real the problem is, how it affects families, how staff deal with finding a dead body in room, watching young men waste their lives on drugs. I have seen young men for reasons I still can't fathom, take a handful of prescription drugs that they were not prescribed to get 'a buzz'' …. I watched scores of kids aged 18 to young men in their early 30's on crash trolleys, hooked to drips heading straight to A&E on a Friday at 8pm. And then have a coffee with the same people on the Saturday afternoon, sometimes you could bump into them at 8am and they would have little to no recollection of what they said or didn't say or do. They all swear it is their last 'blow out' etc. And the following Tuesday they are trading xanax bars, diazepam pills and strips of pregabalin like a commodity broker trades in other minerals I guess. I have seen staff members give whoever naloxone to save a life, trying to buy breathing space until over stretched paramedics who are dealing with Belfast's addiction problem, especially weekends arrive.
My reality is after watching news reports on Sky or the BBC about the rise of heroin, opioids and local headlines about a Republican war on drugs ... I step back and look at the war on drugs, do some basic maths like … fifteen drug related deaths and only one with an Irish Republican connection. Irish Republicans are not involved in a drug war. They are dealing with a drug problem that affects all communities on this island.
One of the first heads in the hostel I sparked up a friendship of sorts was also the first of 15 drug related deaths of people who passed through the place I counted. I stopped counting when I moved on. I believe all the deaths were preventable. The heads name is Wolfie Holmes and not Wilfie as the piece says. The two people who wrote the tributes, Wolfie is probably turning in his grave knowing everyone who read the piece, thinks they were his friends. Wolfie wouldn't piss on either of them. He had no respect for them. I am with Wolfie. They are nasty people.
Wolfie was the person who broke the ice. He was a very funny man, with great tales he loved telling. It was my first Monday/Tuesday evening, we were having a roll up in the court yard, and he'd been watching me all weekend trying to figure out who I was, I didn't look like 'a normal hostel head'. We started chatting and he began telling me he had a younger brother called Martin who was a big Elvis fan. The story goes one day Martin, walked into a hair dresser, somewhere between the Glens of Antrim and north of Ballymena and told the hair dresser “I want to look like Elvis”. So she dyed his hair black and a short time later Martin walked out with a duck tail hair cut. His mother went ballistic. From all accounts, Martin didn't care and Wolfie thought Martin was a legend for having the balls to dress like Elvis in a small town.
I don't know the full story but Martin committed suicide, I think he drowned. I got to know Wolfie a little over the last 6 weeks-2mths of his life, we got drunk several time, stuck our fingers up at the world together. Then one Monday evening he got evicted from the hostel, forced to sleep rough and a little over a week later in Sept 2016 , Wolfie was found in a heap in a car park. Shortly after Wolfie was found dead I moved rooms to 317 to have a better wifi signal.
It took William Hamilton to be found dead in room 316 in March 2017 before the hostel changed their policy and procedure on checking the 'well being' of all residents. I remember William arriving, only his 'stay' wasn't as long as Wolfie's. I didn't speak much to him. That was down to William being 'zombied' for most of the time. As a rule of thumb, some heads would be having a coffee and a roll up in the court yard between 8-9am and some others heads would put what looked like a handful of smarties into their mouths. I have seen young men defy every law of science that I was taught in school, due to the amount of pills I have seen some of them swallow. William was found dead very shortly after he arrived. His final 10 days - two weeks on this rock were sorry to see. He was just out of prison, no support from the system. And failed by the system. The staff in the hostel (most cases) are not trained to deal with the mental health issues that William had (and countless others have) But I guess it was 'out of sight out of mind'. And somewhere between Friday evening and Saturday brunch in March 2017 he went to room 316, took what became his last fix and on Monday morning a member of staff found Williams body. My understanding is he slipped into a trance and smashed part of his face on a sink in the room and it wasn't a pretty sight. And he lay there lifeless all weekend.
Another person who was a resident in the hostel for short time was Ray Johnston. I got to know Ray from passing each other in the canteen and playing pool. He was there 6-8 weeks at the end of 2017.. He mostly talked about his family and Celtic football club. Every now and then he would rap 317 ask me for a spliff or sometimes he would throw me a bud or two of weed. One day Ray walked into the pool room and said he was moving back to his girl friends, shook my hand and went on his travels. Then at the end of Jan 2018 he phoned me to say he got a place in west Belfast and invited me up for a beer and catch up., show off his house. A few weeks later I tuned into Radio Ulster one morning to find out the previous evening Ray was murdered in front of his family.
A few days before Christmas 2018 a resident in the the hostel got news that his daughter had died from a heroin over dose. While he was burying his 22/23 yr old daughter, a young man (never found out his name) in his late 20's give or take arrived. It was 21st December, hostel was quiet, I went to grab a coffee in the canteen, when I seen a male member of staff save his life. When the paramedics arrived he had come round a little and they took him to hospital and pumped his stomach out. The following evening around 7.30pm I watched the same member of staff administered naloxone to the same young man in almost the same chair as the previous evening and when the paramedics arrived he was all but brain dead. A few days later doctors turned off his life support. I didn't get his name. For the 24hrs he was there, he is the worst case of addiction I have ever seen. He became the 14th needless death and as I said by the time I left I had mentally chalked up 15 people like Wolfie, William, Ray. I am convinced they were all preventable.
While I wouldn't wish for anyone to receive a punishment beating, never mind a six pack, my opinion has changed after sharing living space with Patrick. Patrick, that is what he called himself in the hostel is one the of victims of a republican shooting. And today I understand better why some people feel they have no choice but to knee cap certain heads. I have no sympathy for him, after breathing the same air as Patrick for several months. I will put it this way, it couldn't have happened to a 'nicer person'. He has no respect for anyone, slimy, nasty piece of work. People such as Patrick should be put on an isolated island to prevent them from breeding and fed bread and water until they die.
The best Republicans can do, and to a large extent are doing in a war they have no real part in (the maths don't add up), a war they clearly didn't start, is try and limit the damage drugs are having on their communities and manage problems that arrive on their 'door step' be it a drugged out persistent joy rider, a drugged out persistent house burglar to a dealer who was flagged to them ' and everything in between, by offering them solutions to change their ways so they don't end up like their friend who was found dead in an up turned car or semi-decapitated in a car wrapped around a tree. Or found dead, lying half naked in a Burger King toilet, covered in vomit with a needle sticking from their arm by a parent and their kids on any given weekend. Or being reminded the lucky ones may have got out alive but paid a price too: they can't kick a football with their kids anymore because bullets are still lodged in their knees from the last punishment shooting ...
➽Frankie McKillen is a North Belfast Rockabilly and free spirit who for many years lived in Paris.