The mystery of the high-flying cocaine users that has whole of Ireland hooked

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The airline pilot, the nun, and the government minister. Everybody in Ireland wants to know who they are. Then there's the teacher, the nurse, the lawyer and the top doctors. All are said to admit, candidly but anonymously, that they snort cocaine. The pilot, in fact, says he takes it in the cockpit.

Cocaine use in the Irish Republic is widespread and expanding. The monied new Ireland, in other words, has a habit. Drug seizures shot up by a factor of 17 last year in the Irish Republic. One consignment intercepted in Co Cork containing 60 bales of cocaine worth a total of £80m.

But who exactly were these high-powered individuals who admitted so frankly to taking the drug? Which government minister could be so audacious as to confess to a journalist in Buswell's, a hotel right across from the Dail – the Irish Parliament – that he's a regular user? And he was quite willing to be recorded. He airily admitted: "Yes I do take drugs – just coke though – regularly enough. I'm certainly not the only one around here that does.

"The hypocrisy that surrounds it really galls me. We all know how widespread it is, in bars, offices – and over there," he added, motioning across to the Dail.

This is the stuff of major scandal – the Dublin government is committed to tackling the drugs problem.

The claims were aired in High Society, a two-part television documentary, shown on RTE, the Irish state broadcaster associated with journalistic probity and high standards. Another RTE investigation, for example, confirmed the widespread use of cocaine by methodically taking swabs in nearly 300 lavatories in pubs, clubs and workplaces. More than 90 per cent were positive.

Drug abuse makes the newspapers almost every day. Last month Katy French, one of Dublin's leading fashion models, died, apparently after taking cocaine at her 24th birthday party. A Dublin coroner called the drug, "by far the biggest killer", saying that last year he had held inquests into 26 deaths which proved cocaine-related.

High Society was different however, with its intriguing cast of characters, and because it concentrated on middle-class professionals and in particular the nation's legislators. But its allegations have thrown up many unanswered questions, since the cocaine users did not appear on screen and the programme relied heavily on dramatisations.

At some point the focus changed and the hunt switched from the alleged users to RTE's sources, with demands for evidence to be produced. The Irish government accused the station of failing to substantiate the allegations and trivialising the issue. Senior RTE executives, under increasing pressure to stand up the tale, announced a high-level internal inquiry. After their investigation, their line was that they stood by their story.

Yet it was not in fact an RTE story at all: the programmes had been made by an independent company. High Society was originally a book by a 33-year-old freelance journalist, Justine Delaney-Wilson, who has a respectable CV. Her career showed no evidence of dubious sensationalism.

The author's material included both tapes and notes, but crucially RTE understood that the interview with the minister was not recorded. Then things started to go awry. When, in a radio interview, Delaney-Wilson was asked whether she had recorded the minister, she said she had. The tape appeared to be the strongest evidence, but it plainly contradicted RTE.

In a later statement, Delaney-Wilson said: "I did make a digital recording of that interview with the person's consent, but strictly on the basis that it was for my use only. I have not retained the digital recording."

She had got rid of it, she said, "after a period of intense pressure, intimidation and threats". She added: "If the choice is to destroy it rather than have it fall into the wrong hands then I'll take the hit on my credibility."

All this was awkward for her publishers, Gill and Macmillan, which said they would have strongly advised her against destroying the recording.

They stood by her, but added: "On the credibility issue, the author has placed herself in a completely unsatisfactory position."

RTE's internal inquiry meanwhile concluded there had been shortcomings in its editorial processes. But the broadcaster maintained that, "this issue was confined to one series and is not endemic". Some of RTE's most senior people appeared before a parliamentary committee to defend their performance before openly sceptical parliamentarians. They did not get a comfortable ride but maintained that all events and testimonies in the programmes were true.

And there it stands. RTE probably collectively wishes it had never heard of High Society, but the station's position is that it believes the material is all true.

Perhaps there are nervous professionals out there hoping that they will not be named, shamed and probably sacked. The cocaine culture is certainly on the increase, but the jury is still out on the fascinating tale of the airline pilot, the nun and the minister.

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