Florence Hamilton has lived in her home in Ballivor, Meath for over 30 years. She has reared her children there, her playschool business is based in her back garden. Children come and go as we chat. Fifty metres away, diggers shift huge mounds of earth and a man dressed all in black keeps a watchful eye.
There is hoarding and ‘Keep Out’ signs. Building work has started and the pounding of steel on stone is deafening. ‘Any queries should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org’ is written on a sign posted on the hoarding.
Narconon bills itself as a drug rehabilitation therapy linked to the Church of Scientology. It was confirmed at the start of this year that the centre was to open in Ballivor. The multi-million euro development will cater for 34 “students” and 18 staff.
According to its official website, Narconon “uses unique rehabilitation technology that gets to the problem at its source and provides a path for long-term success”.
But their methods have proven controversial.
Their drug detoxification programme uses high doses of vitamins along with long periods in dry saunas which it says is an attempt to flush toxins out of your body. The HSE has previously said that “Scientology’s drug treatment programme has no standing amongst medical professionals involved in the treatment of persons with alcohol and drug use disorders”.
A spokesperson at the National Drug Treatment Centre said:
“It comprises a series of interventions (‘Narconon’) with limited or no basis in a scientific understanding of human physiology and brain functioning and may potentially be harmful directly (with overuse of vitamins and other products) and indirectly in that persons are engaging in an intervention with no evidence of potential benefit for them.”
Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Florence described the fear and anxiety she and many in the small community of Ballivor are experiencing. Her fear masks an anger. Hamilton, along with a large number of locals opposed to the Narconon centre, feel abandoned by the Government.
“I found out about it before Christmas and I didn’t believe it. I thought our Government would not allow it to happen because there is no supervision of what they do. It’s not going to sit easy with me, them being there. I run a preschool and my preschool is situated here. Having a rehab centre for drug addicts there – it doesn’t marry at all.
“Seemingly the powers that be don’t have the will to change it. They don’t care because it’s not on their doorstep. We had politicians down here. They were going to do this, that and the other, they got the photo opportunity and ran for the hills and left us to it.”
The noise of the drilling is now impacting on Hamilton and the children she and her colleagues look after, she says, and is something which she finds distressing.
“They’ve started here a week ago. The noise of the pounding and pulling up the foundations – my little ones who make a lot of noise themselves couldn’t take it – they had to come in from the play yard.”
TheJournal.ie travelled to Ballivor on Wednesday of this week and attempted to gauge the opinion of locals. We were soon to discover first hand how security deals with curious visitors.
Our video journalist started filming the outside of the building, outside the hoarding on public property, when he and this reporter were met by a man dressed head-to-toe in black with a cap pulled down over his face. He had earlier started filming protesters who were standing outside. The man walked out holding a camera in his hand.
Both journalists identified themselves as working for TheJournal.ie and asked why the man was filming protesters. He did not respond but instead walked back behind the 12-foot hoarding. The man’s camera then appeared over the top of the hoarding and started filming again. The protesters had long gone at this stage. TheJournal.ie once again asked the man why he was filming and what he thought about locals’ concerns. There was no response.
Attempts to find someone locally who is in favour of the centre to talk on the record proved unsuccessful. Business owners were concerned that any apparent support for Narconon could mean a reduction in their business. They also feared being ostracised in their community.
One business owner, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, said he had no problem with the centre coming in. He added that he had read up on it and urged locals in the area to do the same.
“I had people coming in saying, ‘isn’t it terrible’ and all this and I thought I’d read up on it. I think people are thinking that there’ll be drug addicts just wandering around the place and that’s not what it is going to be, I think.
“But I can’t put my face and my name out there because Ballivor is a very small place. Everyone knows everyone. I’d actually be risking my livelihood if I did that.”
Many people we approached told us that they did not know enough to comment on what was happening. Others said they didn’t want the Church of Scientology knowing their names or face.
Claire O’Mara is a member of the ‘Ballivor Says No’ group – a community programme attempting to resist Narconon coming into the village.
Her message is similar to Hamilton’s – Narconon and its Scientology links are not welcome in Ballivor.
“I’m very nervous. I didn’t know much about Scientology or Narconon but I spent days and weeks reading up on it and I’m worried. We have no idea why they chose such a small village. It’s a very small place. I have not spoken to anyone who wants it here. They’re going back home and parishioners if you can call them that, that they’re welcome. They’re not welcome. We are going to everything in our power to stop them.”
Local politicians have also been vocal on the matter. Sinn Féin TD Peader Tóibín said there was “a massive gap” in the government’s responsibilities, saying “there is absolutely no legislation and no regulation governing how these residential drug rehabilitation centres operate”.
Toibín said that, in addition to closer scrutiny of the centres themselves, the qualifications of the staff employed to administer the courses also needed to be regulated.
Fine Gael Councillor Noel French has been part of the movement against the centre. He spoke of his disappointment that the initial plans for a nursing home did not come to fruition and that this drug treatment centre was instead coming to a village of 1,700 people.
“My main reaction was it was an awful pity that the original planning for a nursing home was not being proceeded with. There are about 23 older people from the parish here who are in nursing homes outside the parish. It would have been a great boost for the community
“We are concerned about the size of the centre. There will be 34 addicts being here for rehab. I don’t have a problem with rehab but I am concerned about the size of it within the community.
“There are no standards here in Ireland with a drug rehab centre. We have raised this with all three TDs from Meath West and each have said they too would be concerned.”
TheJournal.ie contacted the Department of Health and asked it to clarify its position of the Narconon centre and the complete lack of regulations in the drug rehabilitation industry.
A spokeswoman for the department said: “The Department of Health would advise anyone seeking treatment for addiction to contact their local HSE Addiction Service.
“The Department has no jurisdiction over agencies that provide private addiction treatment services. There is currently no provision in legislation for the regulation or inspection of residential treatment or rehabilitation centres specialising in addiction.
“Organisations which provide addiction services and are funded by the HSE are required to meet minimum standards in the delivery of services across a range of criteria which form the basis of any service level agreement.
“The HSE has informed the Department of Health that there is no evidence to suggest that the drug treatment programme, provided by the organisation referred to would meet with any of the criteria set out by the HSE for agencies that provide addiction services on its behalf.
The HSE considers that the organisation’s drug treatment programme comprises a series of interventions with limited or no basis in a scientific understanding of human physiology and brain functioning.”
TheJournal.ie contacted Narconon and asked if it felt it should be regulated by the State and asked its opinion on the protesters’ concerns. The HSE’s stance on the treatment was also questioned by Narconon.
A spokesman for the group said: “Narconon representatives have been meeting with local Ballivor residents over the past number of weeks and each meeting has been courteous and residents who have engaged are interested in the centre. Narconon has sent an information booklet to each house in Ballivor on which are email and telephone contact details if anyone in Ballivor has any questions or concerns
“Narconon follows the laws and regulations of the country in which they operate. Narconon prides itself is setting and maintaining the highest of standards in all aspects of the programme.
“This HSE statement is taken out of context and does not include that the person making the statement also said under cross examination that he did not know anything about the Narconon programme and had never met anyone who had done the programme.”