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Sunday 12 October 2003

Let's show smokers a little tolerance

IT'S with a heavy heart that I write to support Jackie Healy-Rae - a fellow whose pork-barrel politics and general cute-hoorism (not to speak of his vile cap) revolt me - against John A Murphy, one of the great men of our time, but that I now have to do. For Jack and his merry band of vintners are, I believe, right to stand up to the Government over the proposed ban on smoking in public places, while my dearly beloved John A, in backing the ban, has revealed that you can take the man out of the Irish Catholic Church but you can't entirely take the Irish Catholic Church out of even the most independent spirit.

Like John A, I'm a reformed smoker. When I finally successfully gave up in 1986 or so, after innumerable failed attempts, I was a chain-smoker. On an average day I got through four or five packs: if staying up very late, I might get through seven. I hated the habit because I was a slave to it: when you find yourself dispatching taxis at midnight to fetch cigarettes from petrol stations, you know the tobacco is master.

So it was self-disgust that drove me to taking an anti-smoking course but, before I enrolled, I established that there was no danger I would emerge as an anti-smoker convert. Indeed, since it was a cardinal tenet of the course that to avoid the feeling of deprivation you needed to persuade yourself that you could smoke if you want to. I carried cigarettes for a couple of months. (I stopped doing so earlier than recommended because I was still having to buy several packs a week for all the smokers who came to me begging at parties.) My house has many ashtrays, I keep a modest supply of cigarettes for friends short-taken late at night and I quite like the smell of tobacco. (No, even I don't enjoy the smell the next morning, but I never did.)

Being one for the underdog, I hate the way in which smokers are persecuted these days. I loathe seeing them standing in a biting wind outside their offices. I recoil at the beaten, hunted manner most of them display when they ask if you would terribly mind if they had a cigarette and honestly if you do they'll be perfectly happy to have it outside in the rain by the dustbins and they're really sorry and they know it's a nasty habit.

I simply can't understand why good manners can't be employed to enable puffers to co-exist happily with those who hate the smell or who fret (neurotically, in my view) about the hazards of passive smoking.

What's wrong with designated smoking areas, for God's sake? What's wrong with smoking pubs and non-smoking pubs? What is it going to do to prisoners to take away what is almost their only legitimate luxury? And what sadist suggests seriously that people dying in hospices or the mentally ill should be denied this tiny comfort?

Health, you cry: smokers are clogging up the hospitals. Rubbish. Smokers subsidise the rest of us through their taxes and considerately kill themselves before they clog up the old people's homes.

It's the joylessness of it all that gets to me more than anything else. The mad new Irish sanctimoniousness reminds me of the true story from a couple of years ago of the American on death-row who was refused a cigarette before his execution as tobacco had been banned from the prison for health reasons. I'm with Jackie and Paidi O Se: it's life-denying and cruel to deny their old customers their fag with their pint. What's wrong with a bit of good, old-fashioned tolerance?

IN the 1960s, I couldn't wait to get out of Ireland, for I felt stifled by its authoritarianism. Nothing has changed, it seems to me, except that those bossing everyone about now are the forces of political correctness rather than religion. Unlike the English - who would never tolerate such a ban - we are not a liberty-loving people. The US showed us in the 1920s the stupidity of Prohibition. Most of the world these days is demonstrating the futility of trying to ban drugs. Ireland is begging for trouble for similarly failing to understand human nature.

Incidentally, have I missed something or has there been a curious silence from Sinn Fein on the smoking issue. You can usually rely on the Shinners to have clear PC opinions on pretty well everything and I can't imagine that this Stalinist party, whose military masters kill and maim people for not agreeing with them, has had an attack of libertarianism. Could it just possibly be that they fear that a smoking ban will cause real hardship to their racketeering wing and mean there's much less money to finance the party machine? I think we should be told.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards