‘I was spending £1,000 a week on drug habit’

Jackie with his demonstration 'drugs' case
Jackie with his demonstration 'drugs' case

Jackie Burke arrives for our interview carrying a classic box-style black briefcase - the type favoured by high-flying execs and seen in many James Bond and gangster movies, usually stuffed with wads of ill-gotten cash.

When the Banbridge man opens the attache case, I’m astounded by its contents: every class of illegal drug and drug-taking paraphernalia, labelled and displayed behind Perspex.

There’s joints, magic mushrooms, syringes, opium, heroin, LSD, glue, cocaine, cigarettes; stuff I had heard of, stuff I hadn’t.

“Are the drugs real?,” I ask, naively.

“No,” he laughs, “but it didn’t stop a young guy breaking into the case one day when I was doing a talk and taking the hash. It’s actually an Oxo cube, so I’m sure he got a bit of a surprise.”

Jackie uses the case as a prop during his talks on the dangers of drugs, which he delivers to secondary schoolchildren and youth groups across Ireland.

He says: “The idea behind the case is that you have the number one killer, nicotine, right beside heroin; the number two killer, alcohol, right beside methadone; prescription drugs alongside illegal drugs. The idea is to get us away from thinking that the only danger to our lives are things like heroin and cocaine, but rather everyday things. Cigarettes kill 130,000 every year, nine people a day, every day, in Northern Ireland.”

If anyone should know about drugs, and their devastating repercussions, it’s 63-year-old Jackie Burke.

His descent into that murky world began at a precociously young age, against a backdrop, not of poverty, neglect or abuse, but a loving, warm family environment.

“I had every reason not to go down the path I did,” he says.

“I’m not saying we were the Waltons, but we weren’t that far away from it.”

Born in Lisburn in 1953, Jackie was the youngest of three children and doted on. He was bright, too, passing his 11-plus and getting into a good school.

He traces his drug habit back to age 11 when he started smoking.

“When I am asked by young people in the question and answer session after my talks, when I first started taking drugs, I always say 11, because at that age I stuck this thing in my mouth and set fire to it and smoke came out of my nose and mouth - it’s called a cigarette. Now, I’m not being funny when I say that, but if you think about smoking a cigarette, you are not only starting a nicotine habit, but you are breaking down that natural barrier in your mind that says ‘don’t do something unnatural’.

At 13 he first got drunk.

“In those days it was easy to get drink. There was an off-licence that would have sold an eight year-old drink.”

He adds: “Just before my 14th birthday I was introduced to cannabis. At 15 I took speed, an amphetamine, again it was given to me in school.

“I didn’t get any good results in my ‘O’ levels because I was too busy smoking dope in the park opposite the school.”

At 16, he left home for a life of drug-filled abandon in London with a couple of friends.

“I then experimented with LSD and other drugs and by the age of 18 things were really to take a swing for the worse in the most unusual way.

“I heard about a doctor who was giving out lots of pills to people at the time. I went to see him and told him this load of nonsense about how much amphetamine I was using to get up in the morning, the barbiturates I was using to come down at night to get to sleep and he gave me what one doctor here in Northern Ireland called a ‘disgusting amount of drugs’.

“He then took my name and placed it on a register with the Home Office and from that day on, at 18 years of age I became a registered drug addict; I got drugs free of charge on the NHS, I thought it was a dream come true, but it was actually the beginning of nightmare that was to last for many years.”

In today’s terms, Jackie was spending up to about £1,000 a week on drugs - and then came the drug dealing.

“The dealing grew and grew. We had runners who got drugs off us and then went out and sold them and brought the money back to us. But we weren’t in it solely for profitable reasons. We spent it as quickly as we got it.”

Over the years Jackie was imprisoned on five occasions, including spells in the notorious Pentonville Prison, Brixton and the Crumlin Road.

“The most I ever got in a sentence was six months, because the crimes that I was up for were always the same - forging prescriptions, which I stole from doctors’ surgeries, possession of drugs and an attempted robbery of an off-licence.”

He did try to kick his habit on many occasions and was in rehab seven times.

“During those times I wanted to go into rehab, there was no more fun or joy in drugs. I could stay off them while I was in there, but the moment I got out I was straight back on them again.”

And then came personal chaos.

When he was in England, Jackie met a girl. She became pregnant with twins, but one of the babies died.

“It was a hard time. I was here in Northern Ireland when the children were born because we had had a bust-up. When she told me what had happened I went over to England and joined her.”

With the birth of his daughter Laura, Jackie decided he would ditch the drugs once and for all.

“I thought, ‘I’m a father now’,” he says.

Unbelievably, he got a dream job as gardener and chauffeur for an aristocratic lady, a job which came with its own accommodation, a lovely cottage on the estate.

“I got off the drugs over the next few months, but in my head was that same thought every day - ‘Jackie stop fooling yourself, you’ll never be a father to this wee girl, you’ll never keep this job, get back to the drink and the drugs’. So when Laura was 18 months old I walked out on her.”

Jackie’s life was bleak and spiralling out of control. He turned to heroin.

“I didn’t enjoy it. The drugs that I liked were things like cocaine and amphetamines, things that would make you very alert and talkative.

“The one time I did take heroin I took an overdose. I should have died on many occasions.

“One time in particular stands out in my mind where a doctor is standing over me with a file shaking his head, saying ‘you shouldn’t be here - you have taken 10 times the amount to kill any normal person’.”

But then one night as he lay dying, Jackie says he experienced divine intervention.

“My mum went into hospital for a cataract operation. I was in a bad way, as usual, and made my way to her empty bungalow to slip quietly into the box room she kept for me about 8pm.

“At 4am, I woke suddenly with a prayer pouring out of my mouth. ‘Father, please forgive me. Don’t let me die like this’. My legs buckled. I had barbiturate poisoning. I can’t explain it but I know there was a presence of Christ. He turned the pages of my memory. I knew I must be dying. I tried praying ‘Lord just help me and I’ll cut down on my drugs’.

“But God doesn’t do deals. There are no deals. The presence left, leaving only complete depression and emptiness and I knew I’d missed an opportunity that might never come again.

“For over an hour I wept. The phone rang and I literally crawled to it on my elbows. My mum was coming home. Would I be there to help her? It was my second chance. I stayed.

“At 10 minutes to seven I couldn’t have taken three simple steps, at 10 past seven I was standing with a hoover in my hand getting the place cleaned up, ready for my mother coming home....healed and totally delivered from the so-called life that I once had.

“Over the next four days I should have had grand mal seizures, I should have been in hospital. But I didn’t even break sweat. I didn’t even need an aspirin.”

Looking me straight in the eye he says: “You are not looking at a rehabilitated addict, you are looking at someone who took the hand of Christ and was set free.”

That was 22 years ago and Jackie has been clean ever since, and surprisingly his years of drug use have not impacted on his long-term health - his only medical complaint is Type 2 diabetes.

“When God heals you, you are healed,” he says.

Jackie remains forever thankful for the unstinting efforts of his mother Susan who never stopped praying that her wayward son would one day escape his life of self-destruction.

“She was a Christian and she believed one day that Christ could change things.”

Today he is happily married to Hilary, who shares his faith, and has three children, Matthew, 19, Rachel, 16, and Jonathan, 10.

He has also made amends with his daughter Laura, who is now 25: “We are in contact now on a regular basis through the internet. Her forgiveness and her grace astounded me. There was no bitterness.”

And as for the future he is assured and optimistic.

“I am going to keep doing my talks until the Lord brings me home or I can’t do it anymore.”