Craic good, cigarettes bad

Ireland's new anti-smoking zealotry: to quote Father Ted's Father Jack - 'Arse!'

If your view of Ireland is informed by such TV programmes as Ballykissangel and Father Ted, or the music of the Dubliners and the Pogues, or even the rhetoric of the Irish tourist board - exalting Britons to indulge in a bit of ‘the craic’ - then one would be easily forgiven for thinking Ireland a place of general merriment.

If anything neatly embodies the general attraction of all things Irish today, it is James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). The protagonist, played by Kate Winslet, escapes the stuffy, emotionally crippling Anglo-American environs and indulges herself with Leonardo DiCaprio in the carefree, hard-drinking, hard-smoking world that the impoverished Irishmen have created a few decks below.

Yet the Dionysian stereotype of the Gael, juxtaposed against the Apollonian Englishmen, masks the new Puritanism that is currently sweeping through the Twenty-Six Counties. As I have argued elsewhere on spiked (1), an ostensibly liberal Ireland is adopting the disapproving, scolding mores of the now allegedly despised Catholic Church.

Whereas ‘Irishness’ as marketed in Irish theme pubs and films stretching from The Quiet Man (1952) to The Commitments (1991) projects a lifestyle of wanton indulgence - ‘naughty but nice’ - Ireland, the actual place, feels increasingly prurient and forbidding. Far from promising us good times, a break from rigid Anglo-Saxon mores, the Irish government is keen to make Ireland a place where decadent indulgence is definitely a no-no.

In February 2001, Micheál Martin, the Irish minister for health and children, announced the details of the Public Health and Tobacco Bill - which, if passed through the Irish parliament, would introduce a total ban on tobacco advertising and on all sponsorship, and severe restrictions on cigarette vending machines and the prohibition of packets of cigarettes sold in 10s. In a call-to-arms in the Irish Times, Martin spared us no hyperbole in recruiting us to ‘The battle against tobacco’.

‘As a society we cannot sit idly by while our children get hooked on a killer substance’, wrote Martin on 28 February 2001, Ireland’s National No Smoking Day. ‘We need to send a clear, sustained message to the population, particularly young people: nicotine is a powerful, highly addictive and dangerous chemical.’

Mr Martin went on to insist: ‘the Government is 100 percent committed to making Ireland a tobacco-free society.’ In a characteristic display of priggishness, an editorial in the following day’s Irish Times declared: ‘A ban should be placed on smoking in all public, enclosed spaces.’

What is the Irish establishment’s newly discovered anti-smoking venom all about? It is not merely representative of the country’s newly acquired liberal intolerance. The very language and arguments the anti-smoking lobby employ reflect the zeitgeist, bearing testament to the suspicion that the country has become a cultural colony of California.

In the first instance Martin, like former US president Bill Clinton and UK prime minister Tony Blair, gets all faux-weepy about ‘the children’, for whom nicotine is apparently as deadly and addictive as heroin.

Then, of course, the anti-smokers couch their language in the terms of self-help self-obsession. Smokers are victims, they say, whose pain should be felt. Norma Cronin, a consultant with the Irish Cancer Society, said in February 2001: ‘Smokers would have appreciated more support from a partner, family or friend. The main difficulties in quitting cigarettes were cravings, difficulties in social situations, stress and partners or friends smoking.’

Or giving up smoking is lauded as a way to improve our appearance - that is to say, it feeds our narcissistic desires. Ireland’s minister of state for health, Mary Hanafin, applauded the decision by Yvonne Ellard, Miss Ireland, to give up smoking. This would send out the right message to teenage girls, Hanafin asserted. ‘By deciding to quit smoking or not start, they are improving their skin, their teeth and their overall health in the long term.’

And then there are just the bizarre postmodern offshoots, where giving up fags becomes a kind of state-sponsored gameshow. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Construction Employees Health Trust announced that construction workers who successfully give up the evil weed can enter a competition to win a holiday for two in Florida.

As it goes, the new anti-smoking enthusiasm of the Irish government, like all state-sponsored anti-smoking policies, is self-defeating. It only encourages the activity, particularly among teenagers - who will always respond to authority that says ‘Don’t do this’ by doing the very opposite.

Yet in Ireland in particular, the anti-smoking proposals are of course fantastically ridiculous. Is the Irish Times actually seriously proposing that smoking be prohibited in all pubs? I have spent countless hours in pubs in Ireland, and I can only reply to this suggestion in the words of Father Ted ’s Father Jack: ‘Arse!’

And as far as Martin’s aspiration goes, Ireland will become an Islamic republic before it becomes ‘a tobacco-free society’. A survey conducted two months after National No Smoking Day 2000 showed that of all people who tried to give up fags, one percent succeeded.

Above all, Ireland’s anti-smoking zealotry is hypocritical. The Irish government’s ostensibly ethical, caring standpoint is made a nonsense of by the fact that it has no plans whatsoever to raise its corporation tax rate of 10 percent, which attracts so many tobacco companies to the country.

According to the last available statistics, the Irish government collected IR£680million in excise tax from the tobacco industry in 1999. Ireland is a very cheap base from which to process and export cigarettes to the rest of the world. While the Irish government generates a lot of noisy, self-righteous cant about the evils of cigarettes at home, it makes a pretty packet from ‘selling death’ abroad.

This really is a ‘deeply offensive’ Irish joke.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

Read on:

Why Irish eyes aren’t smiling by Brendan O’Neill

No smoking issue

(1) See Ireland’s new PC priests

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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