A VILLAGE IN FEAR OF SCIENTOLOGY

Narconon, a drug rehabilitation centre run by a controversial church, has been given the go-ahead to open in Ballivor, where locals are worried what it might mean for them

Speak­ing out: Loc­als Alan Bris­lin and Claire O’Mara out­side the new Nar­conon facil­ity

4 Dec 2021 By Jenny Friel

AT FIRST glance the invitation seemed like one that a small, close-knit community would have been delighted to receive – a Halloween party, with face painting and treats for all the children from the village and beyond.

Leaflets with the details were handed into local shops. ‘Join us for trick or treats. Entrance to Narconon, Mullingar Road,’ it read. ‘Opposite Ballivor Park and Community Centre, 31 October 2021, from 5pm–8pm.’

There was no need to explain where the entrance to Narconon is. Everyone in the village of Ballivor and the surrounding hinterland in Co Meath knows exactly where it is. Perhaps more pertinently, they know what it is — a newly built drug rehabilitation centre run by the Church of Scientology.

It was soon made crystal clear to those who sent the flyer that the proposed party was not wanted.

‘One of the locals went around there and read them the riot act, told them there was no chance any of the kids would be attending,’ a source tells the Irish Daily Mail. ‘It didn’t go ahead.’

It’s unlikely those at the Narconon centre were too put out, or indeed surprised, at the reaction to their Hal-loween bash. For more than four years they have faced vehement opposition to their presence in this small village in Co. Meath.

There have been protests and petitions, online campaigns, and an intense four-year legal battle to try and pre-vent the centre from opening.

Last week, a ruling by the Court of Appeal gave the go-ahead for Narconon to open up. As yet, it’s unknown when the centre might start welcoming clients through its doors.

‘It’s been ready for over a year now,’ says local Councillor Noel French, who has been at the centre of the campaign challenging the planning permission that allows Narconon to operate as a private drug rehabilita-tion facility. ‘It’s a mightily impressive building that apparently cost €9 million, so it looks exceptionally well.’

French suspects that since the Court of Appeal’s decision, there is nowhere else for them to go in their quest to stop it from opening.

‘I think we were probably on a loser from day one,’ he says. ‘As it stands, the planning laws permit the change of a nursing home to a drug rehabilitation centre. It equates them as the same thing under planning law, which means someone can apply for that change and get it approved.’

Others in the area, however, are determined the fight will go on.

‘They know they’re not wanted,’ declares Claire O’Mara, a mother of three young children who lives in the centre of the village. ‘The people of Ballivor are telling them that, all the time.

‘We know exactly what they do, we’ve researched it… it’s scary. People are afraid, for a number of reasons, one of which is that they’re afraid their house prices will drop because no one will want to come and live here because of that place and who runs it.’

There are many other – some quite sinister – concerns. Perhaps it’s to be expected. After all, is there any other modern religion that has attracted quite as much attention or controversy as Scientology?

There have been documentaries, books and exposés by ex-members who have done little to quash the unease that many feel about this particular doctrine, which has some seriously high-profile followers – including Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley.

For its part, the Church of Scientology has always strongly and publicly refuted claims of any nefarious prac-tices. Since purchasing the site in Co. Meath in 2016, it has gone down all the correct channels with its plans for the old school buildings.

Indeed, it has worked hard and invested a lot of money in expanding its presence in Ireland. Long gone is the rather tatty looking office on Abbey Street in Dublin city centre where passers-by were offered free ‘per-sonality tests’. Instead its HQ is now a stunning refurbished Georgian mansion on Merrion Square. There’s also a 1,200-seater Scientology Community Centre in the south Dublin suburb of Firhouse, which was offi-cially opened by the Church’s leader (and rumoured to be Tom Cruise’s best pal) David Miscavige in Octo-ber 2017.

But it’s the move into a small community, with a population of around 1,700, that has perhaps caused most disquiet. For Claire O’Mara, it’s mostly about regulation – or the lack thereof.

‘Ideally, we wouldn’t have a drug rehabilitation centre plonked in the middle of a village, opposite a play-ground, beside a crèche, and with a national school and community centre right next door,’ she says. ‘But also it’s the fact that it’s Narconon, they’re unregulated. If it was a HSE-run place there are certain criteria they’d need to meet.’

It would seem, however, that it is the Church of Scientology itself that O’Mara fears most.

‘They are known for recruitment and for disconnection,’ she claims. ‘At Halloween they were offering face painting, treats and sweets for the local kids. What drug rehabilitation places do you know that aims events at children?

‘The next step is they’ll start offering the kids summer jobs, then take them on full-time.

‘After that it’ll be offers of positions over in Clearwater in Florida and this is where the disconnection starts,’ she says of the Church of Scientology’s main training centre in the US. ‘Suddenly you’ve got a 17-year-old in America, paying crazy prices for all these courses, and they then realise they’re stuck there and can’t get home and they have no way of contacting their family.’

These are some fairly salacious accusations, but it’s nothing that The Church of Scientology hasn’t faced before. Indeed, there are a number of ex-members, some now

‘They’ll start offering the kids summer jobs’ based in Ireland, who have been vocal about their experiences with the organisation, describing dubious practices and the negative effects these had on their lives.

The Irish Daily Mail made several attempts to talk to someone from Narconon about its plans for the centre and to put these allegations to it this week, but all requests went unanswered.

French, a local Fine Gael councillor, says his main concern is that under planning laws, Narconon is allowed change the use of this development from the original permission for a nursing home into a drug rehabilitation centre.

‘My biggest problem with this is that people didn’t get a choice,’ he says. ‘Section 5s? I’d never heard of them before – in fact, most of the county council were not aware of them until this happened.’

Planning permission for the development of a nursing home on the site of an old primary school in Ballivor was granted by Meath County Council in December 2014. ‘A nursing home would have been very welcome,’ says French. ‘At the moment there’s about 40 people who will have to move out of the parish to get nursing home places — one being built here would have made sense.’

It’s believed the original purchasers of the site could not afford to follow the project through.

In 2016, Narconon Trust purchased the property for €1.3 million. But before the sale went through, it sought a declaration from Meath County Council regarding Section 5 of the Planning and Development Act 2000.

This confirmed that change of use from a nursing home to a residential drug rehabilitation facility was an ‘exempted development’. The council issued the declaration in September 2016.

In early 2018, however, Ballivor Community Group and Trim Municipal District Council both made applications to determine if a drugs rehabilitation facility could legitimately be considered an exempted development.

It was referred on to An Bord Pleanála, which decided that a full change of planning permission would be required for a drugs rehab centre. This decision was appealed by Narconon and the High Court ruled in Janu-ary 2020 that An Bord Pleanála was incorrect.

Last week the Court of Appeal upheld that High Court ruling, paving the way for Narconon to open its latest unit.

‘We were just a local community group,’ says French. ‘We tried challenging this huge, very well-funded organisation that used the top lawyers in the country. We couldn’t afford to take them on, only that An Bord Pleanála listened to us, then they took it on.’

The controversy has also highlighted, yet again, the issues some medical professionals have with the way Narconon runs its rehabilitation units.

Founded in 1966 and based on the ‘discoveries and writings of author, humanitarian and Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard’, it claims to have helped tens of thousands of people at its centres in 18 countries across the world to ‘start a new life free from drugs’.

It operates its rehabilitation centres on a ‘drug-free’ basis, a method that has often been described by critics as ‘cold turkey’.

The New Life Detoxification programme is a combination of exercise, in the form of running to get the circu-lation pumping, a diet of vitamins and supplements, and regular sessions in a dry-heat sauna, to help sweat toxins out.

The methods have been criticised by many leading health professional bodies including the NHS in the UK and our own Department of Health, which has said the system ‘comprises a series of interventions with lim-ited or no basis in a scientific understanding of human physiology and brain functioning’.

The Church of Scientology in Ireland, however, has previously insisted that Narconon centres are set up to comply with ‘the highest health and safety standards in each country where they operate’.

‘There is no regulation in regard to drug rehabilitation centres in Ireland,’ says French.

‘Any of them funded by the HSE have to fulfil certain requirements, but any that are established privately, well, they can do what they like.’ Despite the protests and legal battles, Narconon has made a number of attempts to persuade locals they have nothing to fear. In March 2018, Janet Laveau of the Church of Sci-entology’s National Affairs Office and Linda Alred, Narconon co-ordinator, gave an interview to the local newspaper, The Meath Chronicle. They were asked why they had chosen a site in Ballivor.

‘We were searching with different estate agents and it was the right size and had the correct zoning and was conveniently located in a central location,’ Laveau explained.

‘It’s also an idyllic rural setting. People want to get out of the environment that they are in because they know they are vulnerable to temptation on one hand and on the other hand you have people who don’t want everyone to know.’

She also told how they were shocked at the level of resistance to the centre.

‘I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire life, never,’ she said. ‘I’ve been working with Narconon since the early 80s and I’ve never personally experienced anything but complete acceptance

‘My problem is that people didn’t get a choice’ ‘They’re nice but they have an agenda’ because the programme makes so much sense to people.’

They also claimed that once opened the centre will generate €800,000 a year for the local economy and that many of the staff would be hired locally.

One group to have benefited so far is the local GAA club, which was paid €20,000 by Narconon for the use of its car park during the building works at the centre. A move that didn’t go down well with the protestors.

‘A lot of people had something to say about it and some of it was nasty,’ says French.

There are some locals, however, who have chosen not to get involved in the fight against the centre opening. ‘A lot of people are accepting that it is coming,’ says French.

‘They’re wondering what harm will it do? But others are against having a drug rehabilitation centre in a small village, one that doesn’t have enough services, poor transport links and a part-time Garda station. Then there’s the fear of Scientology and what it means.

‘I don’t have a problem with them trying it. I’m not qualified to question [their methods], and by God, we do need more drug addiction centres in this country — we’ve had three deaths of young men in Trim over the last year.’

French has met with representatives from Narconon on a few occasions.

‘They’re nice but they have an agenda, as far I am concerned, to get approval and respectability,

‘It’s now a question of learning to live together as amenably as possible,’ he adds. ‘But does that mean I trust Scientology? No.’

Others are not so magnanimous. ‘The people of Ballivor are not stupid,’ says O’Mara. ‘We know what they’re about and it’s not the right place for something like that.

‘We’re pleading with An Bord Pleanála to appeal the decision, to take it to the Supreme Court.

‘We’ve stalled them from opening for the last couple of years. There are other treatment centres in Ireland. Narconon are not wanted or welcome, they never will be.’

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