Dr Shane O’Mahony is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Hertfordshire. His latest research examines perceptions of the social and economic factors that shape later experiences of drug-related harm among people who use drugs in the small Irish port city of Cork. Shane talks to the SSA’s Jess Duncan about ‘structural violence’ as a way to understand drug-related harms.

Jess: What can you tell us about Cork (Ireland) as the backdrop to studying drug-related harms?

Shane: Cork is a relatively small port city in southern Ireland. Colloquially, it is referred to as the ‘rebel city’ due to its history of supporting challengers to the British crown and it being a centre of armed rebellion against British rule in Ireland.

Cork is deeply divided along socio-economic lines. The River Lee divides the city in half – with the northside of the city including most of the city’s socially deprived communities, and the southside including most of the city’s affluent communities. Indeed, a term of abuse in Cork would be to call someone a ‘norrie’. This refers to someone from the northside of the city and is a highly localised equivalent of the term ‘chav’.

In the past 15 years, drug-related harm – particularly harm relating to the use of heroin and crack cocaine – has spread rapidly beyond the capital city of Dublin. For example, in the period 2004–2016, there was a 600% in the number of people being treated for heroin use in Cork alone.

One of the things that sets your study apart is that it examines drug-related harms through the lens of ‘structural violence’. Can you explain what structural violence means and give some examples of what it looks like for people living in Cork?

‘Structural violence’ refers to any social arrangement or social structure that demonstrably harms certain populations and/or curtails their agency, and for which they have no responsibility in perpetuating.

My study indicated that participants experienced harm in the family (poverty, domestic violence, drug and alcohol-related harm, and suicide), school (physical and emotional abuse), and community (violence and crime). Given that participants are not responsible for their family background, the education system, or the community in which they grew up, and given that these factors seem to influence experiences of drug-related harm, structural violence seemed a useful and insightful theoretical lens through which to interpret the findings.

Were there any factors that stood out as having a greater influence on whether or how people went on to experience drug-related harm?

If I had to pick one, I would say ‘community deprivation’, as it seems to structure and influence all the other factors. Ultimately, my participants seem to have experienced harm in virtually every domain. For example, in terms of family, 85% of my participants had a parent who had an issue with alcohol and/or drugs, all had experienced emotional or physical abuse in school, and most had been involved in crime and/or violence in their community.

Interestingly, many of the participants emphasised ‘meaningful relationships’ as serving as a kind of bulwark against the impact of this structural violence. This is a novel finding in an Irish context and one that certainly merits further research.

Situating a study in Cork city offered the chance to reveal some findings that might be unique to Cork or to Ireland. Can you talk about some of the localised findings, and also whether the findings had any resonance with research set in other countries?

Many findings were unique to Ireland and Irishness, but there were also many lessons for the international context. Catholicism plays an important role in conditioning drug-related harm – in terms of its influence on education systems, experiences of systematic abuse in Catholic institutions, and its general cultural influence. While this is not unique to Ireland, Catholicism is influential in Ireland in a way not really seen in jurisdictions like the UK. The family also probably plays a larger role in conditioning experiences of drug-related harm than in many other advanced democracies, and Ireland’s (particularly Cork’s) drug scenes are much more recent than in other jurisdictions (e.g. the United States). Despite the differences, drug-related harm in Ireland tends to cluster in marginalised and deprived communities, which can also be seen in the UK, US, and elsewhere.

What implications do your findings have for policy and treatment?

The Irish literature has tended to see community drug problems from a ‘social deficits’ perspective (e.g. lack of educational attainment, lacking stable families, and lacking community resources), whereas my research highlights the importance of viewing community drug problems from the perspective of harm resulting from structural violence. A perspective based on harm rather than deficits leads to very different policies and interventions.

One of the key recommendations is to introduce trauma-informed teaching and to increase resources for schools to develop counselling and other services to deal with social problems. There is also a need to more effectively fund social services, and ideally to redistribute wealth and resources to socially deprived communities to tackle community-level harms. Lastly, there should also be more substantial investment in family support and early interventions.

Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

Dr Shane O’Mahony is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Hertfordshire. Details of the research discussed in this interview can be found below:

‘The area I’m from is very rough’: Drug users’ views on the role of social and economic factors in their experiences of drug-related harm. By Shane O’Mahony. Published in the Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse (2023).

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