Does Ulster Still Say No? Drugs, Politics, and Propaganda in Northern Ireland

Article excerpt

Considerable emphasis has been placed in Northern Ireland as elsewhere upon providing an estimate of the prevalence and pattern of drug misuse, yet despite the importance of this information, a less than adequate picture has emerged. In this paper, divided into three sections, we attempt to layout and explore the assemblage of factors influencing drug misuse in Northern Ireland and subsequently our knowledge of it. In the first section we endeavor to demonstrate that drug use, distribution, and policy cannot be examined in isolation from the politics and practices of the protagonists to the conflict in Northern Ireland. In the second we critically review existing data on drug misuse ranging from the various public health and law enforcement indicators through to the limited emprical research avaliable. The final section makes urgent calls for quality research in Northern Ireland that would be instrumental in influencing effective drug policy and practice.


Drug policies often are motivated by political rather than by public health concerns. Historically, drug policies about use and availability were influenced by the concern for control over markets or trade (Adams 1972; Berridge and Edwards 1987; Partridge 1978). More recently, the relationship between drugs and politics was central to the controversy regarding U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and French secret service involvement in the heroin trade in Vietnam (McCoy et al 1972) as well as U.S. relations with General Noriega (Chambliss 1989). Similarly, scholars have argued that the latest U.S. War on Drugs serves to justify the presence of U.S. military on foreign soil in the absence of a cold war (Elias 1993). Discussions have included "state sponsored" traders in drugs (Dom and South 1990), narco-terrorism (Henze 1986), and the twin dangers of terrorism and drugs in the context of European Union integration (Clutterbuck 1990), all part of what South (1995:419) referred to as the "blurred and murky activities such as drugs, money laundering, arms dealing, and political crime".

Domestically, moral panics about drugs have been linked with political competition and, in turn, policy both in the United States (Reinarman and Levine 1989) and in Israel (Ben-Yehuda 1986). Drug policies have also been implemented in response to perceived threats of particular groups, often ethnic minorities. In the 1800s opium use among persons of Chinese descent was outlawed largely because of the concern over sexual relations between persons of Chinese descent and white Americans (Musto 1987). More recently, substantial differences in the amount of crack-cocaine and cocaine powder result in similar penalties under federal law in the United States, a policy that disproportionately affects African-Americans (Tonry 1994). Drug policies also serve to protect a particular class of people; federal treatment programs in the United States in the 1960s were implemented only after middle class youth were found to be using illicit drugs (Hanson et al. 1985).

These studies have rightly become part of the literature on drug abuse. However, despite the emergence of a vast and diverse literature on the political context of illicit drugs, little has been written about drugs in the context of Europe's longest ongoing political conflict of this century, Northern Ireland.

Little work of a theoretical nature has been done on the relationship between the conflict in Northern Ireland and drugs other than the occasional article appearing in quality newspapers. The official discourse on drugs in Northern Ireland is that until the 1990s, unlike the Republic of Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland, Northern Ireland did not have "a drugs problem."' That official discourse continues that from the 1990s onwards, and in particular during the period of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) cease-fire, a "rapidly growing drugs problem has emerged" (Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 1997:vii), largely based on the availability and use of "dance drugs," primarily Ecstasy. …