HealthNorthern IrelandSpeeches

Colum Eastwood – 2022 Speech on Derry Addiction Centre

The speech made by Colum Eastwood, the SDLP MP for Foyle, in Westminster Hall on 2 November 2022.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered delivering on New Decade, New Approach commitments to a Derry addiction centre.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I will begin with a quote from a service user of the Northlands addiction centre in Derry, which has served the people of our city for almost 50 years. It reads:

“My mother on one side of me, crying her heart out, my elder sister on the other side with a Kleenex in one hand and her head in another. I didn’t know how I felt. I didn’t know how to feel. I was numb. No tears, no emotions, just nothingness. All I could do was stare at a spot on the carpet and try not to look up and see the hurt and pain in my mum’s face.

That was over two years ago, and thankfully, I haven’t had to lift a drink since I came in here. Today though, I can feel, I can cry, and I can see what my mother and my sister meant all that time ago. I can see for myself the hurt and the pain and the despair my drinking was causing to my family and myself. Today, the difference is, I can do something about it. I am learning about myself and this horrible disease every day of the week, and for today anyway I didn’t drink, and for me as an alcoholic, that’s a miracle. The treatment in Northlands along with the help of AA since then has given me my life back; it’s given me a life!”

That is just one of many thousands of stories from people in the city of Derry and right across Northern Ireland who have been affected by the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction, and who have been helped by the wonderful volunteers and staff at the Northlands centre in Derry.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue forward. I talked to him at the airport on Monday, and today as well. Unfortunately, what he is referring to in his constituency is replicated across Northern Ireland and in my own constituency, where there are addiction and drug issues, and where young people are committing suicide. I know that is replicated in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, so I commend him for securing the debate.

My understanding is that the Department of Health is holding the money up. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that, through this debate and through the Minister, we might be able to ensure that the money that was promised can be allocated to the maiden city, and to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, to make things better for them? There seems to be a wee hold-up.

Colum Eastwood

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the impact of the disease of addiction is felt keenly right across our constituencies. Of course, it is important to say that the Northlands centre, which is referred to in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, serves people from right across Northern Ireland. Every single constituency is affected by it.

Now that I see the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), in the Chamber, I might say a word about how we got to this point. For three long years, we did not have an Executive—it feels a bit like we are approaching that period again. During the long hours of torturous negotiation, there was a lot of publicity around a couple of issues, but some of us were focused on a lot more. We wanted to see an Executive back, but an Executive that actually worked on issues that matter to people.

Late one Friday night, the right hon. Gentleman and I had a long discussion about what it would take to get us back into the Executive if we had a successful negotiation. People will understand that, for me, one of those things was the expansion of the Magee university campus. Another was the Northlands centre, which, after many decades of work, has a strong proposal for a world-class addiction centre in Derry. True to his word, as always, the former Secretary of State got that commitment into the New Decade, New Approach agreement. I was very grateful for it, as were the people of Derry.

However, as we know in Northern Ireland, words on a page are not enough. What we need is money in a bank account and proper commitment. To be fair, we had that commitment from the previous Government in the form of New Decade, New Approach, and I have had support from the current Government. We now really need an Executive in Stormont to deliver that. Unfortunately, even when we had an Executive—and we had a Minister up until last Friday—we still could not get the money out.

There are a number of things that I would like this Government to commit to now. What we need is an understanding of what happens if we do not have an Executive. I think all of us in the Chamber want to see an Executive as soon as possible. I would love to see all parties commit to get into government urgently—to get round the table and do the job that we were all elected to do. However, I want the Minister to answer a number of questions for me in the event that that does not happen.

Are the British Government still committed to delivering on the Derry addiction centre aspect of NDNA? We hear an awful lot about all the commitments, but this is a very important commitment for many people. What is the impact of the political instability on this particular proposal, and how will this Government act if we do not have a functioning Executive? As much as we all will it and want it, if we do not get to the point of having a functioning Executive, will those people who rely on this world-class service, and those who do not even know that they are going to rely on it, be able to access it?

Mhairi Black (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (SNP)

Last year and the year before, on average almost every day in Northern Ireland somebody died because of the way that they misused alcohol. Does the hon. Member agree that if that number of deaths were caused by any other issue, Government would absolutely be on top of it and we would have the Executive up and running and functioning? Does he agree that there is no excuse for the lack of clarity from Government?

Colum Eastwood

The hon. Member is absolutely right; one person every single week dies from alcohol-related disease in Northern Ireland. If we add in drug-related deaths, we are talking about 10 deaths a week. Imagine the outcry if that was happening in full public view; we would be rushing to deal with the issue at every level of Government. Frankly, there is no excuse any more for anybody to stand in the way of this commitment.

New Decade, New Approach was an international agreement, signed off by two Governments and supported by five political parties. Some of us actually went into government on the basis of this and other commitments. Everybody in the Chamber knows about the cost of living crisis and the time it takes to access the health service. We should all know about the impact of drug addiction and alcoholism in our communities. We should be rushing to get this money out the door and spent.

Northlands has a very proud record. I want to put on record just how grateful the people of our city, and the people of Northern Ireland, are to all the staff and volunteers at Northlands, as well as all the people who put their money in the boxes to support that wonderful service. Over the past five years alone there have been 1,186 weeks of treatment for hundreds of people attending the six-week residential programme at Northlands, and 12,886 non-residential counselling slots have been used. On average, over 35% of people for whom the data is available in that period are in recovery, with an average of under 10% in relapse management.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)

Will the hon. Member talk a little more about the team behind Northlands? I recall from my time as Secretary of State that it is not a commercial or money-making enterprise; it is local people who understand the specific issues with addictions in Derry and are passionate about those priorities. They are deeply impressive, and I think it would be useful for the Minister to hear a bit more about the people behind Northlands.

Colum Eastwood

I am grateful for the right hon. Member’s intervention and I want to put on record my gratitude to him for getting the commitment in writing in the agreement. He went to meet the people behind the Northlands centre—people like Denis Bradley and many others, who over many years gave of their time, expertise and love for the people of our city and the people who have been struggling with this disease. The House would not believe the number of people who are very grateful for the work they have done.

It is also important to say that in our city and in other parts of Northern Ireland, we are faced with another problem: the grip of paramilitarism. Paramilitaries use drug addiction and abuse to coercively control communities in a way that needs to be tackled. In my view, the best way to tackle it—because we have tried everything else—is to deal with the root cause, which is addiction. Organisations such as the Northlands centre do that in a way that needs huge support. What better way to do that than to get this money into that organisation’s bank account and to get this project delivered?

Before I finish, I ask again: will the Government continue to be committed to funding this service? What will happen if we do not see an Executive formed as a matter of urgency? Will this Government step in if we do not get a Health Minister at Stormont? I hope that we do, and I assume the Minister is going to talk about the need for an Executive. He has no bigger supporter in that call than me, but if we do not get an Executive, what are this Government going to do? Of course, it was this Government who committed to getting this money to Northlands and getting the project up and running. I am grateful to the Minister for being here, but I will be even more grateful if we can get this money spent, as has been committed to.