The Minister of State for Public Health, Hildegarde Naughton, announced plans to reconstitute the North Inner City Drug and Alcohol Task Force last month, and the HSE is seeking expressions of interest for the role of chairperson.
Drug task forces were originally set up in areas hit hard by heroin. They brought together all the relevant state agencies – such as the health boards, the Gardaí, government departments, educational organisations, as well as local politicians and community representatives.
They allowed frontline workers to feed information up the line and influence drug policy, and were able to respond to issues that arose locally.
In the summer of 2021, the Department of Health suspended the task force and stopped funding it following a dispute over the appointment of a new chairperson. The department said that there were governance issues.
Two and a half years later, a spokesperson says the department will publish the outcomes of its review into governance issues at the task force “shortly”.
“Central to the reconstituted task force is a transparent selection process for the appointment of an independent chairperson who will bring experience, commitment, skill and energy to the role,” says a spokesperson for the Department of Health.
The spokesperson says the governance concerns included “the transparency of the arrangements put in place for the selection and appointment of an independent chairperson”.
That is refuted by the remaining members of the taskforce, who said at the time they followed the correct procedures outlined in the handbook.
“For the past two and a half years the Dept of Health has been undermining the NICDATF by repeatedly making allegations, that have been shown to be false, about the process for selection of a new Chairperson,” said the group, in a recent statement.
Electing a new chair
The Department of Health suspended the North Inner City Drug and Alcohol Task Force in 2021 citing governance concerns and stopped funding it.
The main issue seemed to be the appointment as chairperson of Anna Quigley, the co-ordinator of Citywide, a national network of community organisations and activists involved in responding to the drugs crisis. She replaced Professor Joe Barry, who was leaving after more than a decade leading the task force.
According to an article in the Sunday Times, an official in the Department of Health was unhappy with the process.
Jim Walshe wrote an email saying that there were “poor governance procedures” in place at the task force and “there is a risk of significant reputational damage to the department if this situation is allowed to continue”, he said.
The procedures for task forces are outlined in the Local and Regional Drug and Alcohol Task Forces Handbook, which says that the chairperson will be elected directly by the task force.
“The criteria for nomination include: a relevant expertise, knowledge and experience of the drugs issue in the area and an assurance of the necessary time commitment to carry out the job,” says the guidance booklet.
Minutes of meetings of the North Inner City Drug and Alcohol Task Force published on the website outline how the appointment took place.
In January 2021, the outgoing chairperson sought nominations from the taskforce for potential candidates and said that the person would be expected to commit for three years, according to the minutes of the January meeting.
“Chair needs to be independent with the ability to work with the stakeholders, have an awareness/understanding of addiction, recovery and also the role of the local community,” says the minutes.
At the March 2021 meeting, according to the minutes, Anna Quigley was the only person who expressed an interest in the role.
The North East Inner City Programme Implementation Board – which is working to implement the recommendations of the Mulvey Report to tackle socio-economic disadvantage in the area – offered to help with the selection of a new chairperson for the drugs taskforce, according to the minutes, and the outgoing chairperson met with an executive officer of the Department of Health to discuss this.
“However there is no role for an external body to be involved in selecting the Chair as this would be outside the legal process of the company,” says the minutes.
“The Chair recommended Anna Quigley for the role of new Chair, and all 10 attendees expressed their support for this recommendation, pointing out her suitability based on her work experience and understanding of both the issues and the local area, as well as welcoming her willingness to take on the role,” says the minutes.
The Department of Health has yet to respond to queries sent Friday, as to specifically how the task force contravened the procedures when appointing the new chairperson.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said governance concerns at the task force included “the establishment and evidence for the independence of the chairperson, in particular that the chairperson is not directly connected with any of the projects being funded by the task force”.
The Department of Health has yet to respond to queries sent Friday as to whether there was evidence that Quigley was connected to projects that were funded by the task force.
Quigley said she didn’t want to make any comment at this time.
The spokesperson also cited the involvement of funded organisations in the decision-making processes of the task force and the lack of involvement of elected councillors on the task force, as the other governance concerns.
The department didn’t respond to a query as to whether it is unusual that some staff from service providers would sit on the task force.
The January 2021 meeting minutes show that the task force was trying to involve councillors by writing to them and it planned to write to the chair of the Central Area Committee. Some councillors in the area had three years earlier complained about a disconnect between themselves and the task force, and a lack of clarity over what it did.
The statement by the remaining members of the original task force says the review process undertaken by the Department “has been in breach of every standard of good governance and proper procedure”.
“The Department has effectively torn up the Task Force handbook,” it says. “Proposing to put in place a model that means, in effect, that the HSE will in future be running the North Inner City Drug & Alcohol Task Force.”
The proposal diminishes and weakens the role of the task force by limiting it to the provision of services, says the statement. It excludes important aspects of what the task forces do including engaging with policy issues, identifying emerging issues and advocating for policies needed to address them.