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In defence of Finian McGrath

“Finian’s Rainbow,” one journalist called it.

While I was away last week the new junior health minister Finian McGrath made a very simple public statement asking for everyone to “cut the smoker some slack”. That was it really. As Ian O’Doherty put it in his article, “Contrary to what many supporters of the smoking ban seemed to believe, the issue was never just about cigarettes. It actually was a land grab for our personal freedoms.”

Asked about the specifics of the slack he referred to, Finian quite rightly pointed to the issue of comfortable smoking rooms in public places or, more correctly, the lack of them. I vividly remember the introduction of the ban and how on one night the pubs allowed smoking while the very next night they couldn’t allow it. It was a shock to the system and many smokers just quit going to the pub, leading to closures at the rate of one a day for a long time afterwards.

In response creative publicans began developing beer gardens and outdoor areas to accommodate smokers and this led to dedicated smoking rooms popping up around the country. This were called ‘smoking rooms’ and by implication they were a separate area from the bar for those wishing to smoke. The signs didn’t specify ‘No Precious Children Allowed’ but you suspect the bar owner expected parents to use their heads. The adult non-smoker though was left in no doubt as to what the room was for and what went on in there.

Smoking rooms were not IN the bar but OUTSIDE it. They were designed to ensure that non-smokers were not exposed to second hand smoke. Several I saw had employed double-door systems to ensure that not a wisp of smoke could escape. Bar staff didn’t serve drinks in there nor did they clean up until well after the smokers had left. In other words, owners went to great length to segregate the smoker from the non-smoker.

The basic idea was to cater for all customers. Critical to the publican’s thinking was the weather, or bad weather in particular. Smokers were going cheerfully outside in the warmth and sunshine but the rain and cold saw them having one drink then heading for home or not showing up at all. So a nice smoking room was essential for both owner and customer.

Seeing this development the puritans and nannies panicked and a new clause was quietly added to the statute books. The new definition of a smoking room became “An area open to the elements equal to the square floor area.” In plain English it meant either no roof or two walls missing. It was a guarantee you would get wet and cold in the smoking room on a bad day and for the life of me I can see no good reason that should be so. By definition it is a place to go for a smoke. By definition the users would be smokers who will smoke cigarettes anyway, so why must they be cold and wet for doing nothing illegal?

That was Finian’s question and he is echoing the sentiments of the vast majority of decent Irish smokers. He is saying what we are thinking and that is, “You have tried to price us out of it, you called us names and invited others to do so, you have pushed us out of society and look down on us and done all that you can to make life hard for us. Yet still, we continue to enjoy a smoke when we want to.

“We buy cheap black market cigarettes, we ignore your scorn and threats, we go about our lives with quiet dignity and tolerance, and we gently work around your nastiness. We would like a comfortable smoking room and, what’s more, our local publican would like to provide it for us. We don’t want to bother anyone and if you don’t want us inside the pub we are happy to leave your company and join like-minded people in the smoking room.

“Our money is as good as yours and if segregation is what you want then let’s have it. But there is absolutely no reason that you should dictate the terms of the smoking room, either to us, the users, or to the man or woman who owns it. It is our tiny little bit of space and, if you like, you can sit with your respectable friends in the empty cathedral you made of the main bar. We’ll be outside chatting and laughing in the smoking room.”

That is all the honest Finian had to say on the matter but the reactions to it were explosive. The letters pages in the mainstream press were full of outrage. Have a look here, here, here, here, here and here for a flavour of the vitriol:

Some of those correspondents purposely tried to mislead the public by implying Finian was demanding the workplace ban be overturned. Such manipulative disinformation is despicable and yet so typical of the nasty tactics often employed by some quarters. They are spiteful small-minded people peddling fear and misery for their own power-mad aspirations and phobias.

But the point is still valid and as a group of 800,000 decent people we should be agitating for comfortable smoking rooms in pubs everywhere to reflect the commercial demand for same in a civilized western democracy. Whether you identify with his politics or not, Finian McGrath deserves our support on this issue and I for one am going to contact him and tell him so.

Perhaps we needed to be pushed this far before we sat up and pushed back a little?