Sinn Féin TD Jonathan O’ Brien discusses the pain and regret of being big brother to a heroin addict

Sinn Féin's Jonathan O'Brien speaking to political reporter Fiachra Ó Cionnaith in Cork. Picture: Eddie O'Har

Twelve months on from an angry Dáil confrontation over his younger brother’s heroin addiction and homelessness, Sinn Féin TD Jonathan O’ Brien tells Political Reporter Fiachra Ó Cionnaith how addicts around the country — and their families — need ongoing support to cope with their illness

“It’s a tiny island, but it’s worlds apart. You have two brothers who grew up in a good home. One turns out, fortunately, to be an elected rep in Leinster House, a TD. The other one turns out to be a struggling heroin addict who’s homeless.

“That doesn’t make me any better than him or him worse than me. It just means our lives took different paths. It’s not like I’m the good son and he’s the bad son. We’re brothers, and that’s it.”

For over an hour, Cork North Central TD Jonathan O’ Brien has been speaking candidly about a part of life that is rarely mentioned in Dáil economic recovery speeches and even more rarely visited by the political elite.

Despite the recession being ‘officially’ over, heroin, the Sinn Féin drugs spokesman explains, is still destroying families across the country. Including, he adds, his own.

In an honest and at times emotional interview with the Irish Examiner, initially intended to be a positive story of how his brother has been helped fully out of addiction and into long-term housing, Mr O’Brien instead tells a very different story, a story that families struggling with addiction will know all too well.

Despite receiving help, housing, and support after a near two-decade heroin addiction became public knowledge during a Dáil debate a year ago, Jonathan says 37-year-old brother Martin returned to rehab over Christmas after succumbing to drugs and becoming homeless again in the previous months.

Jonathan O’Brien, second right, chats to a homeless person during a soup run on the streets of Cork, with Christina Chalmers and paramedic Tony O’Brien of Helping Cork’s Homeless. Picture: David Keane
Jonathan O’Brien, second right, chats to a homeless person during a soup run on the streets of Cork, with Christina Chalmers and paramedic Tony O’Brien of Helping Cork’s Homeless. Picture: David Keane

While stressing how proud he is of his “closest friend” for “fighting like the man I know he is to get clean”, the situation is a far cry from the last time Jonathan spoke publicly about the matter when, in April, he told fellow politicians that while his brother “obviously still has a battle ahead of him” he was “completely” off heroin and in badly needed accommodation after generous offers from private landlords.

However, as Jonathan explains, this ever-changing story is something people living with drug addiction have learned to expect in their ongoing attempts to help their loved ones — a yo-yo-ing reality that is exacerbated by funding and access issues for long-term drug addiction services nationwide.

After up to 12 attempts to go clean since 2009 and his continuing hope his brother will overcome his demons, Jonathan admits Martin is — like hundreds of other drug users in Ireland — “institutionalised to the streets and the chaotic lifestyle of addiction”.

Breaking that cycle, he says, should be the central aim of families and government services for people suffering from addiction. However, he admits it is far easier said than done.

“After what happened last January [the Dáil row], we managed to secure a property for my brother. But he was so used to living on the streets that he found it hard to actually even sleep in a bed.

“You know, people become institutionalised to the streets and to the chaotic lifestyle of addiction,” explains Jonathan, who had initially been reluctant to discuss an issue he has kept private for a number of years.

“One of the difficulties with recovering addicts, which at the time [of the Dáil revelations] he was, is because someone has an addiction for such a long time they lose a lot of their social skills — managing a budget, paying bills on time, learning how to feed yourself properly again, healthy diets, proper eating. They lose all of those skills.

“You can kick the habit but unless there is some programme or somewhere they can go to get those supports post-rehab, then unfortunately we’re going to have a situation where people fall back into the addiction. And that’s what happened to my brother.

“He wasn’t evicted, he wasn’t thrown out, but he wasn’t ready to live independently either. He had relied on drugs for so long and when he didn’t have drugs he didn’t have any other crutch. And unfortunately he just slipped back into addiction.”

Despite coming from a “good family” in a working class area of Cork City, doing “very well” in his Leaving Certificate and getting “a good job” working in a bar in Germany, Mr O Brien’s only brother slowly slipped into becoming a recreational drug user in the late 1990s after leaving school.

It began with a gambling addiction after he emigrated to Frankfurt in 1997. However, by the time Martin returned to Cork 11 years later, Jonathan says, it was clear he was fully addicted to heroin — a revelation the TD says led to a “confrontation” he still finds “very hard” to make himself remember, as he has been “trying to deal with it ever since”.

“My brother and myself, we’ve always had a very close relationship, we still do. He trusts me 110%. Obviously, you know, we’re not identical twins, we don’t live the same lifestyle — I’ve never done any drugs, I only drink occasionally, I got interested in politics, he didn’t.

“But when he went to Germany, I think that’s where a lot of his addiction started. He would have started with a gambling addiction and that would have spread into drugs.

“I would have known he would have been a recreational drug user at the time, and I knew my brother was addicted to heroin long before anyone else in my family. I’d worked it out myself, I could see the signs of somebody whose life was spiralling, the lack of dignity, someone losing a sense of hope, your life just becoming more and more chaotic.

“You know, it’s difficult to talk about because he is my brother and I am extremely proud of him despite everything he’s gone through, but he made decisions.

“He eventually came back [to Cork] in 2008, maybe into 2009. Maybe he wasn’t working over there [Germany] any more, maybe he came back knowing he had an addiction or issues and felt more secure at home and just needed somebody to reach out to. I don’t know. But he came back.”

On his brother’s return, Mr O Brien says he “confronted” him without an immediately open response.

“I think more addicts deny they have a problem, deny it to themselves as much as anything. So they’re not going to admit it to other people straight away.

“As I said, I knew my brother was addicted to heroin long before anyone else. And because I had that close relationship with him I was able to speak with him and say ‘look, I know you have you’re difficulties and problems’.

“It’s very hard to remember that day now when I first confronted him because I’ve been dealing with it ever since. I just saw my brother as a person who needed help. I didn’t see the addict, I saw my brother.

“But you almost have to leave them hit rock bottom themselves before they admit there is a problem, and that’s the hard thing.”

Over the following months, the Cork North Central TD says he and relatives slowly coaxed the reality of the situation out of his brother, watching him at one point attempt to go ‘cold turkey’ — a controversial form of self-detox not recommended by doctors where an addict locks themselves into a room for a number of days in a bid to flush out their addiction, and which Mr O’Brien admits is “extremely dangerous” and something he did not endorse.

Up to 12 further attempts to go into rehab and get clean followed over the subsequent seven years, with limited and ultimately short-lived success, an issue Mr O’Brien says he hopes will not be the case with his brother’s latest attempt but notes is partially due to the addictive nature of heroin, problems in accessing the services available and a lack of follow-up supports for people trying to kick the habit to help them adjust to a more stable life.

“I’ve helped my brother self-detox, I’ve seen him go through detox, I’ve steered him in the direction of people who can give him professional help, not just addiction counselling but general counselling,” he says.

“I’m always at the end of the phone for my brother, he’s the only brother I have. But you can’t force somebody to do something against their will and, for addicts, it’s often the environment they’re in [that becomes the problem], that would be the case for nearly every addict.

“Heroin doesn’t listen to advice from family, so it’s not a case of me or anyone else knocking on somebody’s door in the same situation who he might be staying with and warning them to stay away.

“It’s addicts being in a position to knock on the door of heroin and say ‘I’m done with you’, but that takes a lot and it’s where services like the drug injection centres [with counselling and other supports on offer on a more easily accessible basis] are needed.

“Heroin is probably the most addictive drug you can be on, and even if you’re off it for a period of time something trivial can trigger it and you need that crutch again and end up using.

“So when someone is looking for that help to get off it, it’s not just a case of throwing money at the issue. They need proper services, counselling, almost self-living skills again, to be re-taught how to just function in society. And a lot of that is missing.

“There are some cases, for example, where you have to be clean for so long before you can get into the system. And that completely defeats the purpose of the system, in my opinion, because people on drugs struggle day to day. One day they’ll use and the next day won’t, so the services have to be there on the spot.

“We have excellent services in terms of, if you can get into them, people have been able to beat addiction, but a lot of the issue is when you get back out of rehab, you go straight back into the environment you were in.”

It is these latter points — and the fact some addiction counsellors have up to 200 people on their books, an issue Health Minister Leo Varadkar told the Dáil last April does not take account of the fact the average case load is “only” 25 to 50 — that led to Mr O Brien’s “red rag” Dáil outburst a year ago, in which he revealed the difficulties his brother faces, having previously kept the issue a strictly private matter.

During the Leaders’ Question debate on homelessness and drug addiction in the aftermath of Jonathan Corrie’s death yards away from Leinster House, Mr O Brien hit out at Tánaiste and Labour leader Joan Burton’s responses by claiming she “does not have a clue” and revealing his own brother’s situation.

Labour TD Eric Byrne shot back, pointedly asking why “his good family does not take him home” and saying that the “well-paid” Mr O Brien should spend his Dáil salary on housing his brother himself — a comment that led to a furious reaction from the Sinn Féin TD. The two haven’t spoken since.

He plays it down, but tensions, it is clear, still simmer.

“I’ve not spoken to Eric since and Eric’s not spoken to me. He didn’t offer an apology, nor did I seek one,” Mr O’Brien states calmly, although his body language suggests he is still bristling over the remarks.

“I think it said more about him as an individual than it did about myself and my brother. Considering Eric has been on the the drugs taskforce in Dublin for so long, I think it was a very crass, off-the-cuff statement by him.

“I think he probably realises it wasn’t the type of statement he’d normally make but, in the adversarial nature of politics in the chamber, he probably just jumped to the defence of his own party leader who I was having the argument with.

“Look, there’s no ill will between us, we just... we don’t speak.

“I have no issue with Eric personally over the incident and I wish him and his family well, and I hope they never have to deal with a situation that we dealt with.”

Mr O’Brien again tries to answer Mr Byrne’s year-old questions over why Martin’s own family do not intervene and offer him a place to stay.

“It’s very easy to say ‘why don’t you just take him home?’. I love my brother, but you’re talking about somebody — not just in my own personal case but addicts in general — because they live such a chaotic lifestyle, to bring them into a home environment where there are young kids may not be the best thing for him as an addict or for your own family.

“An addict can also feel the pressure of trying to hide the extent of their addiction while living with family members, and that’s why a lot of addicts end up either homeless or sofa-surfing.

“The other issue is more fundamental. If my brother moved back in with me, because I own X as a TD, he’d lose whatever supports he gets from Social Protection, he would not be entitled to a medical card, which you need if you’re on a methadone programme, a GP-only card, rent allowance if he wanted to go and move out, any payments whatsoever.

“There’s a lot of reasons, sadly, why it’s just not practical to bring people who are homeless or addicts back into that environment.

“I think Eric knows better than anyone that it’s a complex area. If it was as easy as family members putting a roof back over their head then we wouldn’t have a homeless issue, because there’s no family out there who wants to see any member of their family in the clutches of addiction or on the streets.

“My brother has asked for help. But all family members can realistically do, in my experience, is be there to give support when somebody asks for it.”

The difficult balancing act between offering support while protecting other relatives is a harrowing situation that will be more than familiar for the hundreds of families around the country that are coping with drug and other addictions.

Proof of this point, if it was needed, came just before the Irish Examiner interview began, when Mr O’Brien received a phone call from his brother who wanted advice about whether he needed to go to a nearby emergency department as he was vomiting after taking drugs hours earlier.

Mr O’Brien — fresh from an RTÉ TV debate with Fine Gael Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney and Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath, and dressed in a smart suit in the lofty environs of University College Cork — spent a number of minutes talking to his brother privately and offering any help he needed.

They are phone calls, he stresses, he will always take, and confirms they sometimes occur when he is in the plush surroundings of Leinster House.

Martin’s latest attempt to go clean by re-entering rehab over Christmas, it could be argued, is partially a result of knowing his sibling’s support will always be there. But while the connection between the corridors of power and the streets of pain show how we live on a tiny island, in some aspects these lives remain worlds apart.

“He’s my brother, he’s 37, he’s been a heroin addict for a number of years now, homeless for a number of years. We’re not identical twins. But... but he’s not a bad guy,” says Mr O’Brien.

“A lot of people have the impression of drug addicts, and particularly heroin addicts, as just being the scum of the earth, but that’s not the case in every case.

“They’re somebody’s brother, sister, son, daughter, somebody’s parent in some cases, not just people on the side of a street corner or aside a public toilet injecting themselves. They’re human beings.

“I hope he can kick his addiction completely, that he can get back into the workforce, be happy and settle down. Have kids if he wants to.

“But the reality? I don’t know. I don’t know what the reality is for him. It’s one day at a time.”


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