TCS Daily

Ireland's Puritans

By Brian M. Carney - September 4, 2003 12:00 AM

Irish Deputy Prime Minister Mary Harney once said that Ireland was -- "spiritually" anyway -- closer to Boston than Berlin. Her point was, if Europe and the U.S. are divided by America's supposedly unrestrained capitalism and Europe's "more compassionate" social-market model, Ireland was charting a course somewhere between the two, but closer to America than Europe in terms of freedom, entrepreneurial spirit and economic dynamism.  


Last month, Ireland's health minister set out to prove Harney's point in an entirely different -- and less salubrious -- way. America may have lower taxes, higher income per capita and better economic growth than the Continent, but when it comes to questions of personal health and lifestyle, Europe can make America look positively dirigiste. And unfortunately, it is that lamentable American tradition that Health Minister Micheal Martin seems to be adopting with his proposal to ban smoking in all workplaces across the Emerald Isle. Since people work in pubs, too, that means no smoking in bars. And it's this aspect of the new rules, which are set to take effect 1 January 2004 if Martin gets his way, that have the country -- and the publicans -- up in arms. 


The smoking ban, like those recently passed in New York City and (of course) Boston, claims to be aimed at protecting workers rather than saving smokers from themselves. This twist on the traditional anti-smoking rhetoric is designed to appeal to people's compassion while dulling the nanny-state edge of the rules.  


But it seems unlikely that bar workers who lose their jobs because their pubs are closed due to lost business will feel very "protected." What's more, bartenders and waitresses seem as capable as construction workers or fishermen or anyone else of weighing the risks of their jobs against the benefits, and choosing a career path accordingly.  


The Irish hospitality industry, which accounts for 6 percent of Ireland's economy, is in a virtual panic over the proposal, and has been seeking middle ground with the government. But last week the government's chief medical adviser, Dr. Jim Kiely, was quoted in the Irish Times saying no compromise was possible where the health of workers was concerned. It makes for a great sound bite, but it's hogwash; we compromise on health and safety questions everywhere and all the time. As the Irish Hospitality Industry Association, a lobbying group for restaurant, bar and hotel owners, pointed out, cars kill too, but we don't ban them. 


"That's true," comes the anti-smoking lobby's response, "but that's because we have to weigh the good against the bad when it comes to cars. But what good has smoking ever done anyone?" Seems to me that's something for the smokers to decide, but meantime, they've already granted the IHIA's point, which is that all health measures are proportional, not absolute. "No compromise" makes no sense. It's just an excuse to turn smokers into pariahs for their own good -- and, of course, the good of the workers, as the argument du jour now runs. 


As a practical matter, the replacement of the paternal "we're doing this for your own good" logic of earlier attempts to rein in smokers with the "it's for the workers" trope does seem to have given the anti-smoking lobby a new head of steam. But the new line hides the pseudo-Marxist idea that workers are entirely at the mercy of rapacious employers who would sacrifice employees' health for a quick profit. If, as Deputy Prime Minister Harney argued back in 2000, the key to Ireland's success lies in taking the best that both Europe and America have to offer, leaving behind discredited socialist baggage about the helplessness of the proletariat would be a good place to start; equally, U.S.-style health fascism should have no place on the Emerald Isle. 


Unfortunately, come New Year's Day, it looks like Ireland will be getting a little taste of the worst of both of the worlds the Emerald Isle seeks to straddle. At least one person close to the government with whom I spoke seemed to feel a compromise was inevitable, but so far Martin shows no sign of backing down. If he gets his way, Irish pubs will look a little more like America, and for all the wrong reasons.


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