Proposed Irish ban on smoking in the workplace enrages MPs and publicans

For a government facing more than its fair share of scandals and difficulties, it is a problem it could do without. Fianna Fail, the senior partner in Ireland's coalition, gathers for its annual conference in County Kerry today divided over a controversial ban on smoking in the workplace.

The party is already on the slide in the opinion polls, with a weakening economy, and several recent scandals involving its members.

One backbencher is regularly sent to jail for not co-operating fully with a corruption inquiry, another has had to pay a hefty fine for tax evasion and a third knocked down a nurse while driving under the influence of alcohol.

Now Ireland's publicans are waging a tenacious rearguard action aimed at forcing a change of mind on the imminent smoking ban which critics say will significantly change Irish social life by turning pubs and restaurants into smoke-free zones. But the Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, is expected to tell conference delegates that the cabinet is adamant the smoking ban will go ahead in January.

Technically the ban will come into effect on the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, though there will be a short period of grace to allow drinkers and diners to adjust to the change.

The government's determination to ban smoking is opposed by the powerful entertainment lobby, which claims that tens of thousands of jobs could be lost. Publicans in three counties - Kerry, Tipperary and Donegal - have already said they will not implement the ban. There is even talk of running protest candidates in next year's local council elections. This is a serious threat for the government, since single-issue candidates can often do well and might cost the government seats, at a time when it is already unpopular.

Ministers in Fianna Fail are sure to be buttonholed by opponents of the ban at today's conference. One anti-ban backbencher, John Cregan of Limerick, set out the case against the ban, saying: "I am convinced that workers would be protected adequately if there was a non-smoking section, with rules such as no smoking at the bar. Rightly or wrongly, this ban is perceived by the public as a police-state action. I've never had so many representations from such a wide cross-section of the public on one single issue."

Another Fianna Fail member, Val Hanley, has resigned as chairman of the Western Health Board, saying there had been a lack of consultation. Mr Hanley, who is also a member of a publicans' group, said: "This piece of legislation was sneaked in on the back of legislation on tobacco consumption. There was no debate, it was undemocratic. If it was voted on now, it would lose."

Five junior ministers have expressed their opposition to the ban, suggesting that it should be modified and phased in over a period of three years, and other ministers have signalled their disapproval. The Environment Minister, Martin Cullen, who does not drink but gets through at least 40 Player's Navy Cut a day, has said publicly he would miss his "Coke and a smoke".

Another, Frank Fahey, who as Minister for Labour Affairs has some responsibility for bringing the ban into effect, was said to be against it but was, for several days, resolutely unavailable for comment. This week he returned early from a golfing holiday in Spain to state, reportedly after some arm-twisting from political colleagues, that he supported the smoking prohibition. "In fact I'm vehemently anti-smoking," he declared.

He went on to say, however, that he had concerns about a number of technical issues, adding: "I do appreciate that the publicans have a difficulty and I think there will be problems with enforcement."

His comments drew a prim response from Michael Martin, the Health Minister, who has been the main force behind the ban. In an implicit reprimand to Mr Fahey he said: "Ministers in the context of their responsibilities and duties as ministers have to fulfil these." Mr Martin, a young and energetic minister who is seen as a possible future prime minister, is accused by opponents of the ban of being unreasonable, one publicans' representative branding him "absolutist".

This is a serious charge, since Fianna Fail is renowned as a party which hammers out compromise deals in so-called "smoke-filled" rooms. But on this issue Mr Martin has been implacably opposed to any watering down of his proposals, declaring: "There is no room for compromise or delay when it comes to such a serious public health issue".

He rejects claims that places with a smoking ban, such as New York, have suffered economically. "I don't accept the doomsday job-loss predictions, he said, "because it hasn't happened anywhere else where similar measures have been introduced."

The minister's personal commitment on the issue is so strong that a retreat by the cabinet at this stage would probably be a resigning matter. He and the government are also attempting to discourage drinking, especially bingeing among teenagers which is regarded as serious problem.

Supporters say the ban will be accepted in the same way as measures such as compulsory use of seatbelts, which was initially controversial but became routine. Mr Martin makes this argument, saying that "future generations of young people will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about".

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