The fag-end of the Republic

Why Ireland made a bigger deal of the first anniversary of the smoking ban than the anniversary of the Easter Rising.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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When the Irish government outlawed smoking in pubs and clubs (and all other workplaces) a year ago this week, critics said it was the ‘Nanny state gone mad!’.

They warned that the ‘fighting Irish’ – not known for their love of rules and regulations, especially those passed by political fixers in Dublin who drink in staid, smokeless English-style wine bars anyway – would go mad. The ban might work in the leafier bits of Dublin, and maybe Cork, but not further south and west, where men and women like nothing more than a pint or five and a fag at the end of the day, and where a pub might be the only thing you see for five miles. Were the Gardai (Irish police) expected to visit every bar in the land and stub out each and every evil weed? The Vintners’ Association of Ireland said the ban would be ‘unworkable, untenable and unenforceable’ (1).

Yet a year later, the Irish government and media are celebrating the ban as a ‘stunning success’; it is, ventured a breathless account in the Irish News of the World, the ‘health initiative of the century’ (2). There’s little sign of the much-predicted rural rebellion: according to a survey published in the Irish Times, 94 per cent of bar workers have had ‘little or no difficulty in implementing the smoking ban’, and 87 per cent of bar workers support the ban, an increase of 16 per cent since it was introduced (3). I visited Connemara in the west at the weekend (which is about as rural as it gets, bringing to mind the legend ‘To hell or Connaught’), and there even oul bars have set up outside premises for patrons who smoke, some of them warmed by Outdoor Patio Heaters (in which there has been a roaring trade since the ban was introduced). Caoimhe, who works in a bar in Galway and is herself a smoker, says the ban ‘is fine by me’.

Cigarette sales have fallen. Gallaher, which makes Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges and has about 50 per cent of the Irish cigarette market share, says sales fell by 7.5 per cent between January and June 2004, as a result of both increases in tobacco duty and the smoking ban: that’s 260million fewer fags sold than normal (4). On the Cavan/Fermanagh border separating the Irish Republic from Northern Ireland, some now go north for a night out. As one report put it, for smokers in Cavan in the Republic it is only a ‘500-yard stroll to freedom’, to pubs in British-ruled Fermanagh where there is no smoking ban (yet) (5). Back in the Republic, things have become quieter, duller: it is strange to eat in restaurants where gangs of people nip out for a fag in between courses, and to visit pubs where half the clientele are inside and the other half huddled around a heater in a makeshift ‘smoking zone’ outside. Cracks are appearing in the famous Irish craic.

How did the Nanny State-haters get it so wrong, with their (predictable) predictions of an uprising against what one described as the worst kind of ‘nanny-state nagging’? (6) Why has the ban been widely accepted by the public and celebrated by politicians of all persuasion, in a country previously known for its dingy bars, and where an earlier attempt was made to reduce cigarette smoking by getting more people to chug on a pipe instead (that was in 1979, when one member of the Irish parliament talked of ‘the necessity to attract people away from cigarettes, through which they inhale nicotine, and to the pipe’)? (7)

Where some dissed the Irish smoking ban as an old-fashioned authoritarian pry into the average man and woman’s night out, it is in fact something quite different. The Irish government’s anti-smoking crusade is a desperate scramble for a sense of moral purpose, in a state where the two pillars of politics and society – nationalism and Catholicism – have all but collapsed. Indeed, Ireland is a pioneer in using the new politics of personal health to substitute for a grand political vision.

The ‘stunning success’ of the smoking ban certainly is not a result of the Irish government having happened upon further evidence that second-hand smoke is as harmful to non-smokers as tobacco smoke is to smokers. This was the key justification for the ban, as a means of protecting workers (especially bar workers) from smoke. Michael Martin, Minister for Health and Children at the time the ban was brought in, claimed that the ‘worldwide scientific community’ is in agreement about the ‘proven harm’ of passive smoking (8). In fact, that debate is more up in the air than Martin allowed. As Dr Michael Fitzpatrick has written on spiked: ‘Despite the growing medical (and political) consensus about the dangers of passive smoking, the issue has remained controversial.’ While some experts accept the plausibility of an increased risk of lung cancer from second-hand smoke, they question whether it is ‘epidemiologically significant’ (see We have ways of making you stop smoking, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick).

Yet while the ban is pushed by health officials – and much is made of the fact that 82 per cent of bar workers say they now find it easier to breathe in the workplace and 68 per cent claim to cough less – this is much more than a health initiative. That was clear from the first-anniversary celebrations of the ban that took place while I was in Ireland, which massively overshadowed the eighty-ninth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, which took place at the same time. That commemorates the storming of the General Post Office in British-ruled Dublin on Easter Monday 1916, by Irish Volunteers who read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic before pinning it on the GPO door. The Proclamation declared ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible’. The 1916 Rising led to the War of Independence of 1919 to 1921, and later the Irish Civil War of 1922, and is recognised as the founding moment of the Irish State.

But never mind all that – to celebrate the first birthday of the smoking ban, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern took part in a grand ceremony at St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, where he planted a horse chestnut tree and posed with a baby who was born on the day the ban came into effect. The baby was a symbol of hope for ‘future generations’, Ahern explained. ‘As we approach the first anniversary of the ban, we can share a sense of national pride in a measure that will have significant health implications, not just for us here today, but for our children and generations to come’, he said (9). If this was merely a health measure to clear bar workers’ lungs, why was it being celebrated by the highest echelons of government?

The government advertised its great and successful act of altrusim to the nation, in TV and radio broadcasts. You could barely pop into a shop, post office or, indeed, bar, without hearing the radio message saying the ban had made Ireland a ‘healthier nation’ and that it was incumbent upon Irish people to ‘keep it that way’ (9). Elsewhere the ban has been talked up as an historic moment for the Irish nation. Luke Clancy, chairman of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) Ireland, said the ban is ‘an example to the rest of the EU and indeed the whole world’ and has ‘enhanced Ireland’s place in the world’. ‘This is groundbreaking legislation, where Ireland has led the way for other countries’, he claimed (10). Meanwhile, the 1916 celebrations were altogether more muted, provoking a handwringing angst that has become common over the past 15 years, with commentators asking ‘what is the meaning of 1916’?

This contrast between the anniversaries of 1916 and the smoking ban tells us a lot about the Irish authorities’ all-out focus on the evil weed. Like the rest of the Western world, Ireland has been shaken by political and social upheaval over the past decade and more. Traditional institutions have been widely discredited and no longer command people’s allegiance. The Catholic Church, which once played a central role in Irish society, is in a dire state; an Irish government inquiry is examining thousands of cases of debauchery and abuse meted out by the Christian Brothers and others against children over the past 50 years.

Nationalism was once key to Irish politics, especially for Fianna Fail, previously seen as Ireland’s natural party of government, which traced its origins to 1916. Yet nationalism is on the wane too. In the 1990s, Fianna Fail showed its willingness to scrap the constitutional claim to a united Ireland and dropped its traditional title of ‘The Republican Party’. Today Easter 1916 is an embarrassment to the elite. Every political party in Ireland has been tarnished with scandal in recent years; according to one report, distrust of politicians is higher in Ireland than in any other Western European state. Nationalism counts for little, and very few trust the priests anymore – Ireland is suffering from what might be called Post-Traditional Stress Disorder.

This helps explain why it has embraced – more fervently than any other state in Europe and perhaps the world, as Irish ministers keep reminding us – the new PC health agenda. The war on smoking allows Ireland’s scandalised ruling class to appear serious and concerned; it is a national campaign through which they can present themselves as altruistic, as having the Irish people’s best interests at heart. And crucially, they instinctively recognise that lifestyle politics, the regulation of people’s eating, drinking and other habits, is one area where they might win some public consensus. Among an atomised public, where there is an often overblown concern with health and wellbeing, measures to improve health can win widespread endorsement. So Ahern, who presides over a nation where there is little moral consensus on the big issues of today or yesterday, got overexcited by the success of the smoking ban, declaring: ‘I am delighted that there has been unanimous support and acceptance for the smoke-free measure in Ireland.’ (11)

The reorientation of Irish politics and society around anti-smoking (seriously) is a sober reminder for why we should oppose the public smoking bans creeping into effect across Europe and the USA. Not only because they are illiberal and intrusive measures that set a dangerous precedent for other government clampdowns on various ‘lifestyles’, but far more importantly because of what they reveal about our political culture more broadly. When outlawing the evil weed can become the stuff of national politics, and can be accepted by an increasingly conformist public mood, it doesn’t bode well for anyone who thinks politics and change should be about more than whether and when individuals can puff on a Silk Cut. The Easter 1916 rebels summoned all Irish people to the flag, to ‘strike for freedom’ against British rule; all Ahern can promise ‘future generations’ is that pubs and restaurants will be smoke-free.

Ireland’s smoking ban has allowed a corrupt and decadent establishment to reinforce its grip over an atomised public. If an official in a town or city near you proposes a similar ban, be sure to blow smoke up his arse.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Smoking

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) Smoking extinguished in Irish pubs, BBC News, 30 January 2003

(2) Health initiative of the century – or wrecker of pubs and jobs?, News of the World, 27 March 2005

(3) 94 per cent of bar workers had little difficulty in effecting smoking ban, Irish Times, 26 March 2005

(4) Huge drop in cigarette sales, RTE News, 9 September 2004

(5) Southern smokers break for the border, Guardian, 30 January 2005

(6) Goodbye to all that: killjoys on the Emerald Isle, National Review, 27 April 2004

(7) Parliamentary Debates, Dail Eireann, Volume 311, 1979

(8) Goodbye to all that: killjoys on the Emerald Isle, National Review, 27 April 2004

(9) Ahern praises health effects of smoking ban,, 25 March 2005

(10) ‘Health initiative of the century – or wrecker of pubs and jobs?’, News of the World, 27 March 2005

(11) Baby helps Ahern mark smoking ban anniversary, Irish Examiner, 24 March 2005

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Topics Politics


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