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Moving the Needle: Drugs and Peace in Northern Ireland

In April 1998, the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement brought a new era of peace to Northern Ireland.[1] Twenty-three years on, tensions remain. With ‘entire streets’ now indebted to paramilitary gangs, could drugs reform be the key to peace in 2021? [2]

By: Martyn Doherty


11 April 1998. In Belfast, ‘men whose adult lives had been filled with talk of “armed struggle” and “no surrender” were now sharing a joke.’[3] Across the Atlantic, The New York Times announced a ‘landmark settlement’ for Northern Ireland.[4] For President Clinton, it would become a ‘work of genius.’[5] At its heart: a fresh start. A ‘new beginning’ for the people of Northern Ireland.[6]

Twenty-three years on, much has changed. The arrival of the ‘peace generation’. Cult success for Channel 4’s Troubles-era comedy Derry Girls. Northern Ireland becoming the ‘world’s best region for tourism.’[7] For Clinton, it is the ultimate success story. “I know you have a lot of problems,” he assures audiences, “But let me tell you about Northern Ireland.”[8]

All the while, problems remain unresolved. ‘For a significant number, growing up in post-conflict Northern Ireland has brought with it continued risks.’[9] Risks including PTSD, ‘limited lifetime opportunities’, rising unemployment and drug use.[10] And, with the latter, a link to the past. Even twenty-three years after 1998’s ‘new beginning’, the ‘drugs trade in Northern Ireland remains enmeshed with those who are, or have been, paramilitaries.’[11]


Across Northern Ireland, the link between drugs and paramilitarism is widely recognised. In fact, it would become one of Derry Girls’ ‘most hilarious moments’, lauded by BuzzFeed for ‘wonderful comedic timing.’[12]

Clare: Look Michelle, drugs are illegal, drugs are addictive. But, perhaps most importantly, in this country you can lose your kneecaps if you’re caught doing them. And I like my kneecaps, Michelle. They suit my knees.

Orla: You do have cracking kneecaps, Clare.[13]

Yet, despite being ‘one of the most researched jurisdictions’ on earth, academic research on Northern Irish drug gangs is limited.14 By 1998, McEvoy et al. were sounding the alarm. Modern drugs policies, they argued, ‘cannot be examined in isolation from the politics and practices of the protagonists to the conflict in Northern Ireland.’[15]


In 2004, Dr Karen McElrath set about analysing drug use in Northern Ireland pre-1995. A ‘lack of research’ created immediate roadblocks.16 With most academics investigating the ‘wider Irish political conflict’, ‘self-report studies of illicit drug use’ were not conducted until the 1990s.[17]

Nevertheless, it seems clear that drugs and conflict map closely in Northern Ireland. Before the 1990s, ‘Northern Ireland was not perceived to have a definable drug culture.’18 Among potential causes: weaker supply chains; heightened policing; religious ties; ‘close-knit communities.’[19] With paramilitaries concentrated on violence, communities were largely shielded from drug-related crime and coercion.

However, darker truths remained. Throughout the Troubles, ‘drug users were perceived [by paramilitaries] to be a threat to [their] all-important political struggle.’[20] With paramilitary organisations seeking a ‘self-image [as] protectors’, drug trafficking meant “punishment violence” for marginalised communities.[21]

Today, this remains partly true. Thankfully, paramilitaries enjoy ‘lessening [public] support’. Still, ‘systematic beating, exiling and torture remain pervasive’ in both Republican and Loyalist strongholds.[22] Not just that, but ‘drug use has flourished’, as paramilitaries mutate into ‘cartels wrapped in a flag’.[23] In short, ‘the growth of organised crime in Northern Ireland in recent years poses a significant threat to the region’s stability.’[24]


For Northern Ireland’s health service, this crisis is twofold. First, so-called ‘kneecappings’ remain prevalent, and somewhat normalised. As anonymous paramilitaries told BBC reporter Stacey Dooley:

“We know we’re hurting people seriously, but we’re hurting a parasite. We do feel pressured into it a lot, and there’s a big appetite for it. We feel it is a justified and measured response.” [25]

Second, ‘drug misuse [represents] a significant public health issue in Northern Ireland’ today. Despite cannabis remaining the province’s ‘most popular drug’, drug users recorded on NI’s Substance Misuse Database have almost doubled since 2010.[26] As for drug-related deaths, these have risen steadily, spiking to 13.7 per 100k in 2018.[27]


Far from a ‘new beginning’, this is unsustainable. With men aged under 35 worst affected, paramilitary drug trafficking is today a ‘barrier to lasting peace.’[28] For community activist Stephen Finlay, the challenge is systemic:

‘We are working in an area that has suffered severely from a lack of investment, high unemployment rates and low engagement over the years. This has had a real knock-on effect on younger people. Unfortunately, the lack of opportunity has created a vacuum and can often lead to anti- social behaviour.’ [29]

Nevertheless, calls for drug reform are growing. Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph in September 2021, South Belfast MLA Paula Bradshaw (APNI) called the issue ‘high priority’, sentiments echoed by SDLP MP Claire Hanna. For Clare Bailey MLA (Green Party), the goal is clear: ‘[We need] harm reduction measures which treat people who use drugs and their families with compassion and dignity.’ [30]

What does this mean? At present, paramilitaries remain ‘the two poles around which organised crime is structured in Northern Ireland.’[31] Yet, a prohibitionist, unregulated approach to drug use continues, with NI’s ‘perceived differentness [used] to justify conservative drug policies.’[32]

Should change come, several options arise. First, NI could follow Portugal, decriminalising the ‘use, possession and acquisition’ of drugs in the hope of seeing ‘tangible’ health improvements.[33] Second, supply-side regulation of cannabis might help distance drug users from ‘hard drug markets’ and, in time, paramilitaries.[34] Third, 2014 Home Office reports concluded that ‘locally-led’ safe ‘drug consumption’ facilities have been successful abroad. [35]


1998 brought peace, not perfection, to Northern Ireland. Twenty-three years later, that peace is unfinished. For society’s most vulnerable, paramilitary ‘[drug] cartels wrapped in a flag’ threaten both violence and addiction, undermining peacebuilding and integration across society.[36] With no end in sight, a ‘landmark settlement’ on drug policy is needed.

Works Cited: —

1 ‘The Signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998’ (Irish Foreign Ministry, 16 January 2014) accessed 21 October 2021. 2 J O’Neill, ‘NI Streets in Debt to Paramilitary Money-Lending Gangs’ (BBC News, 15 June 2021) accessed 21 October 2021. 3 E MacAskill in ‘11 April 1998: A Blessed Good Friday’ (The Guardian, 7 June 2011) accessed 27 October 2021. 4 W Hoge, ‘An Irish Accord: The Overview’ (The New York Times, 11 April 1998) accessed 21 October 2021. 5 ‘Good Friday Agreement was ‘Work of Genius’ (BBC News, 10 April 2018) accessed 21 October 2021. 6 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998, Declaration of Support. 7 H McDonald, ‘Belfast and Causeway Coast Named World’s Best Region for Tourism’ (The Guardian, 25 October 2017) accessed 23 October 2021. 8 WJ Clinton in AJ Gilliland, ‘Memory Politics in the Wake of Ethnic Conflict: A Northern Irish Example’ (UCLA 2015) accessed 23 October 2021. 9 B Browne and C Dwyer, ‘Navigating Risk: Understanding the Impact of the Conflict on Children and Young People in Northern Ireland’ [2014] Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 792, 792. 10 ibid; C Page, ‘Troubles Trauma -The Hidden Legacy of Violence’ (BBC News, 17 August 2019) accessed 23 October 2021.

11 Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, ‘The Illegal Drugs Trade and Drug Culture in Northern Ireland’ (8th Report of Session, House of Commons 2003) 5. 12 J Guillaume, ’19 “Derry Girls” Moments That Prove Clare is Freaking Hilarious’ (BuzzFeed, 26 January 2021) accessed 23 October 2021. 13 Derry Girls, ‘The Curse’ (Channel 4, First aired Tuesday, 26 March 2019). 14 K McEvoy et al, ‘Does Ulster Still Say No? Drugs, Politics, and Propaganda in Northern Ireland: Contemporary Issues Concerning Illicit Drug Use in the British Isles’ [1998] Journal of Drug Issues 127, 128. 15 ibid 127 (emphasis added). 16 K McElrath, ‘Drug Use and Drug Markets in the Context of Political Conflict: The Case of Northern Ireland’ [2004] Addiction, Research and Theory 577, 577. 17 ibid.

18 NI Affairs Committee (n 11); Illicit Drug Use in Northern Ireland’, First Report of 1996-97, HC 52 paras 18-20, 5. 19 ibid. 20 K McElrath (n 16) 581. 21 K McEvoy, ‘Beyond the Metaphor: Political Violence, Human Rights and ‘New’ Peacemaking Criminology’ (2003) 7 Theoretical Criminology 319, 322. 22 NI Affairs Committee (n 11); K Higgins and R Kilpatrick, ‘The Impact of Paramilitary Violence Against a Heroin- User Community in Northern Ireland: A Qualitative Analysis’ (2005) 16 International Journal of Drug Policy 334, 334. 23 K Higgins and others, ‘Secular Trends in Substance Use: The Conflict and Young People in Northern Ireland’ (2004) 3 Journal of Social Issues 485, 485; J O’Leary, ‘South East Antrim UDA: “ A Criminal Cartel Wrapped in a Flag”’ (BBC News NI, 21 March 2021) <> accessed 23 October 2021 24 B Dickson, Law in Northern Ireland (3rd edn, Hart 2018) 205; NI Affairs Committee (n 9). 25 G Cross, ‘You Don’t Feel Guilt or Remorse – BBC’s Stacey Dooley Meets with Masked Gang Behind Northern Ireland Punishment Shootings’ (Belfast Telegraph, 10 September 2018) accessed 23 October 2021.

26 S Keenan, ‘What Illegal Drugs in Northern Ireland are Most Widely Used Where You Live?’ (Belfast Live, 29 November 2020) < > accessed 29 October 2021; ‘Statistics from the Northern Ireland Substance Misuse Database 2001/02 to 2016/17’ (Department of Health, 29 October 2020) accessed 29 October 2021.. 27 J Hughes and others, ‘Drug-related Deaths in Northern Ireland: Socio-Demographic Analyses’ (NISRA, 24 March 2020) accessed 23 October 2021. 28 ‘Removing Barriers to Lasting Peace’ (The Community Foundation, 26 July 2021) accessed 28 October 2021. 29 ibid. 30 J Scotting, ‘More than Three Ambulance Call-Outs per Day in Northern Ireland are for Drug Issues’ (Belfast Telegraph, 5 September 2021) accessed 28 October 2021. 31 N Hourigan and others, ‘Crime in Ireland North and South: Feuding Gangs and Profiteering Paramilitaries’ [2018] Trends Organ Crim 126, 127. 32 K McElrath (n 16) 587; See: Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

33 Law No 30/2000 (Portugal); S Ferreira, ‘Portugal’s Radical Drugs Policy is Working. Why hasn’t the World Copied it?’ (The Guardian, 5 December 2017) < radical-drugs-policy-is-working-why-hasnt-the-world-copied-it> accessed 25 June 2021. 34 ‘Drugs: International Comparators’ (UK Home Office, October 2014) accessed 24 June 202, p 38. 35 ibid 13. 36 O’Leary (n 23).


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