It was one of the most disturbing sights I have ever seen, and the sound was even worse : a prolonged high-pitched scream with a vibrato shake. It came from a tiny baby in a plastic incubator – a plaintive cry against the world : why am I like this, why am I in such pain?

It was the Intense Care Unit of Dublin’s Rotunda hospital and the baby was a new born child, in the agony of drug withdrawal because its mother was a heroin addict.

I suspected as much when I saw the mother who had the unmistakable demeanour of a drug user and a passing young doctor almost nonchalantly confirmed that yes, it was a child with withdrawal symptoms passed on through its pregnant mother.

The mother was almost equally nonchalant. ‘The facilities are much better here for this, than in Temple Street’ she told me, when the baby’s screams died down. She was a junkie and this was the world her child had been born into. I found it deeply disturbing that a human being was already in such pain, as soon as they were born.

I thought about this when I read recently that ninety-two newborn babies with drug withdrawal symptoms were discharged from Irish hospitals last year, according to the HSE.

A total of 501 babies were discharged with withdrawal due to the mother’s use of drugs during pregnancy between 2012 and 2016. Heroin, methadone, cocaine and benzodiazepines are among the substances involved, although legal exposures to drugs such as tobacco, alcohol and antidepressants can also result in withdrawal symptoms.

In the Irish Times report, a spokesperson for Merchants Quay Ireland Homeless and Drugs Services, said that while there is no specific programme in place for such babies, authorities are notified “once we’ve become aware that a mother has become pregnant”. Following this, intensive support is given to the woman, it said.

We do give a lot of support, not only during the pregnancy, but afterwards for people who have children in care, or new babies, or children that they’re trying to get back in touch with.”

The Merchants Quay project does heroic work, as do all the agencies on the front line of the scourge of heroin abuse. But there was something disturbing in the way that this was reported in the Irish Times. It seemed to typify that mindset of that paper and the crippling non-judgemental attitude that that paper’s ‘societal’ approach represents.

There is a sort of clinical neutral tone, as if this was a normal part of childbirth. The mother is at the centre here : a ‘victim’ it seems – rather than a perpetrator and who has put their baby through this ordeal. Or am I being too judgemental? Maybe I’m not realising that it is the ‘fault of society’ and ‘deprivation’ that people do hard drugs.

Where is personal responsibility in all of this? Talk to people who come from a similar backgrounds as these addicts, as I do every day, living in the north inner city, and they become understandably enraged by this let-off for bad behaviour, indulged in by middle class liberals. Especially as they have to live beside the consequences.


Such a let-off also shows how much we have normalised dangerous drug abuse. And some would have us normalise it even more. The latest proposal, supported by the Health Minister and the Taoiseach (pictured together above) is that people should not be criminalised for possession of just a small quantity of illegal drugs. This is madness.

It is one thing not to further criminalise soft drugs like cannabis or marijuana, and avoid clogging up the jails and police stations with people who are just smoking a few joints. And, as for more sustained use, for genuine medicinal purposes, that is understandable too.

But ‘just a bit’ of heroin or cocaine? Are we mad? Heroin is one of the most powerful and destructive drugs we have ever seen. It sucks in people in, makes them pass out before getting high, and then the ‘high’ vanishes so that the addict has to score more heroin every day just to feel normal. Believe me, I have had many friends who have used heroin and most of them got strung out, disappeared or died. Some of them thought they could just ‘chase the dragon’, as in smoke the heroin. But then they were injecting and then they were dead.

A ‘little bit of heroin’ is not like having a gin and tonic or a cigarette or even a joint. But incredibly our Taoiseach, a doctor, would endorse this. So we legislate further against people having a drink, but relax the laws against people in possession of ‘just a small bit’ of heroin?

Meanwhile, the Labour party proposes community injection rooms, so that drug users don’t have to be hidden away or go down lanes. What kind of signal does that send? Does it mean that druggies can come to the shooting rooms but not get arrested, for any amount of heroin? Extraordinary.


As it is, we have methadone clinics right in the centre of our capital, just off O’Connell Street and by Trinity College, which visitors and locals have to pass. Why?

And even the Government’s methadone programme is worth reflecting on. Basically, the State is a substitute drug dealer, keeping people stoned at the taxpayers expense. Granted the State has a selfish reason too, as people desperate for a fix might otherwise engage in serious crime. And there is a humanitarian reason : methadone can hopefully wean the users off actual heroin and off drugs altogether, although that’s a big ask. But the reality is that we are giving free drugs to drug users (and criminals) with public money.

Like many, I sympathise greatly with heroin addicts, and their pain – imagine that a plant in Afghanistan could cause such misery – but when you get older and live amongst it, you start running out of pity. Or, rather, you run out of sympathy with the people who want to in some way normalise and remove all key sense of personal responsibility. They even want you to stop calling them ‘junkies’. Because that’s to denigrate them and not treat them with respect !

Meanwhile, the 500 babies born as drug addicts since 2012, have experienced symptoms that they are not to blame for – like seizures, sweats, tremors, sleeplessness, vomiting, diarrhoea, and problems eating and breathing.

According to an Advanced Nurse at Dublin’s Rotunda Maternity Hospital, “these newborns are extremely irritable, they’re over-stimulated and suffer tremors and even seizures. They get the sweats, they don’t sleep more than an hour and can cry for up to 18 hours a day – an extremely high-pitched, very specific cry instantly recognisable to any professional. “

And this is the unforgettable cry I heard in the Rotunda many years ago and which I think about ruefully when I hear our naïve and meddling politicians, and legislators, try to make something that is truly evil in any way respectable.

The article appeared in The Times, Irish edition.