Thursday, January 08, 2004

The Smoking Gun

Not since Danny Ostler played at stand-off half for South Africa on the Springboks' tour of Great Britain and Ireland in the 1930s has anybody kicked for touch with the devotion of the current Irish Minister for Health, Mícheál Martin.

No politician really cares for making decisions, and Irish politicians in particular react with the horror a vampire before a crucifix at the thought of having to do so. For the length of his tenure as Minister for Health, Martin's stock response to any crisis, big or small, has been to commission a report. We can only assume that the carpet in Mícheál's office on Poolbeg St has a little mountain about the size of Kilimanjaro from all these reports being stuffed under it.

However, good and all as this strategy was at keeping trouble away from the Minister's door, his image as the White Knight of Fianna Fáil was beginning to recede as Brian Cowen began to loom large in the hearts of the faithful. What Martin needed was a stunt, some scheme that would be instantly popular but that couldn't possibly cost him votes. In the smoking ban, he thought he'd found it. Charlie Haughey pulled off one of his many masterstrokes by delivering free toothbrushes to schoolkids; Martin planned to emulate him by delivering clean air to everybody.

Nobody can protest that smoking is anything other than bad news.The Vintners did a lot of howling at the time, but their forebears did a lot of howling in 1868, when they presented a petition to the then Prime Minister of Great Britain protesting that the end of public hanging was going to ruin the drinks trade. As such, it was difficult to take them seriously.

However, Martin's sprint for the political high ground has run into some quicksand of late. Today's Irish Independent reports that, instead of the January 1st, 2004, start that the Minister initially spoke of, the start date has now been pushed back as far as April, as it becomes increasingly difficult to define what a workplace is, and how this smoking ban is to be enforced.

When reading of the difficulties that the Department of Health were experiencing in defining what exactly a workplace was - remember the excitement as we wondered if somebody could smoke in a hotel room, on the basis that it would foul the air of the chambermaids when they came to change the linen in the mornings? - An Spailpín has hit on a wizard idea to kill two birds with one stone. If, as I understand it, the publican is liable for someone smoking on his premises, then all landlords are liable for anyone smoking on their premises. This means that the next time you hear the landlord clumping up the stairs looking for his rent you should light up a gasper immediately. Once he enters (uninvited, of course) he is immediately liable for polluting his own air with your smoke, and must pony up before His Honour. This means that either the landlord goes broke, or you never see him again, either possibility a consummation devoutly to be wished.

This is the pickle that the Minister now finds himself in, as he tries to kick a cute political goal when he thinks everybody is looking the other way. And what's worst of all for the Minister, as he slowly sinks into the morass of legalisms he's covered himself in, is that he can't put Bach's Air on a G String on the stereo and spark up a Hamlet cigar to soothe his furrowed brow. It will teach him, as Fate has done to so many others, to be careful what he wishes for.