When Irish eyes are spying

Ireland has not only banned smoking in restaurants and bars, ministers have also asked citizens to g

In the imagination of many English people, the Irish are a cheerful, rebellious folk who care little for officialdom, bad government or oppressive laws. They are also deemed to possess the finest bars in the world, pubs that epitomise their hedonistic, happy-go-lucky disposition.

This is the Ireland of Pete McCarthy's travelogues, of television programmes such as Ballykissangel and Father Ted, and countless newspaper travel pull-outs. Being half-Irish myself, I rather warm to these benign, if somewhat patronising, stereotypes. Alas, this rosy perception rings less true in reality today. Contemporary Ireland has, in one respect, one of the most illiberal governments in the western world, and a decidedly servile population to boot. And, travesty of travesties, Ireland may soon have the worst, most joyless pubs on the planet.

From 16 February, it will be illegal to smoke in any restaurant or public house in the Republic of Ireland. No, this is not a joke. When you tell this to many English people, they assume that they have misheard you, or that you are pulling their leg. "Ireland? They're going to ban smoking in pubs in Ireland?" No, I didn't say Norway, Holland or New Zealand, places one would expect (and which shall shortly get) such interfering, state-sponsored hypochondria. No, I said Ireland.

Even if a ban were to be implemented, my English friends protest, surely the feisty, fun-loving Hibernians would not pay attention to it? On the contrary, a majority of the Irish population appears to be in favour. A poll in the Irish Independent last year put the figure at almost 70 per cent.

Among those who oppose the ban, there is a mood of acquiescence. Some smokers even feel a sneaking sense of gratitude towards the state.

"It'll be the end of the Irish pub," laments one punter, pulling away on a fag at the Rockland Hotel bar in Salthill, a suburb of Galway City. "It's all too far, too quick. People will simply stay at home instead." But not her. "I myself will be giving up. I couldn't stand the stress of having not to smoke in a bar." This sentiment is echoed by a barman in Jameson's, just up the road. "I'm a smoker myself, but I suppose I might as well give up when the smoking ban comes in. I don't like it, but I suppose it's going to happen."

The landlord of Killoran's Bar also says he may give up, but he has other worries. The new legislation places the burden not on the customer but on the landlord, so if a punter sparks up on his premises, the landlord is liable for a £1,900 fine or a three-month jail sentence.

Many landlords fear unsavoury confrontations with their customers. "As if I'm going to tell a group of drunken young fellas to feckin' put out their fags," blusters the governor of Killoran's, "and get a punch in the face for my troubles."

So why has the Irish state become so ferociously anti-smoking? It's partly down to the efforts of the health minister, Michael Martin. He once smoked a cigarette when he was 15, and so disgusted was he by the experience that he has since vowed to make Ireland "a tobacco-free country".

After commissioning a study from the grim-sounding Office of Tobacco Control which concluded that smoking was a haz- ard in the workplace, Martin announced that bar, hotel and restaurant staff should not have to be subjected to second-hand cigarette smoke. However, he magnanimously added that those who employ domestic cleaners will be permitted to smoke in their own homes.

This legislation makes California and New York City look positively anarchic. From next month, only the mountain kingdom of Bhutan will have harsher anti-smoking laws (the king there has banned tobacco altogether). Martin proposes to set up a telephone hotline so that people can inform on the lawbreakers. It is hardly the stuff of tourist board brochures: "Come to Ireland! Don't enjoy 'the craic'! Spy on your neighbours!"

This is not just a case of the state working without the blessing of the populace. Compared with Britain, and for all its protestations about its leap into modernity, Ireland remains a conformist nation. Sure, councils in London, Manchester, Sheffield and Brighton have made vague noises about implementing comparable bans in public places, but there would be outrage if the British government forced through a comparable law, bypassing parliament. After its tortured attempt to ban hunting with dogs, a pastime that has a vastly smaller number of people participating in it, the British government would surely be wary of taking on smokers.

Ireland may have unshackled itself from the Catholic Church, but it still has a puritan, finger-wagging elite that enjoys telling people how to conduct their private lives - and all this with the blessing of three-quarters of the populace, many of whom will tell you with a straight face that smoking should now be outlawed in homes and in private vehicles, "for our own good".

There is hope, however. Landlords in several counties in the old rebel strongholds of the west and south, including Galway, have announced that they will not observe the ruling. They say they will embark on a campaign of civil disobedience and are prepared to go to prison as a consequence. There are also reports from Donegal and Cavan that hotel functions planned for this year have been cancelled, with residents choosing instead to hold their parties across the border in Tyrone or Fermanagh. Thus, we now have the extraordinary situation of Catholics fleeing, in the belief that their rights are being infringed, into Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, it has dawned on many erstwhile anti-smokers that the legislation is hopelessly ambitious. With crime, particularly violent crime, on the increase in the republic, it's not as if the police and the courts have not got enough to occupy themselves with. There is a growing realisation that this petty law is simply unworkable. Ireland is not the west coast of America: the pub is central to the Irish (and, indeed, British) way of life. As with fox-hunting, even some "antis" say that the government should really be devoting its energies to more pressing issues.

In the Bunch of Grapes in Galway City, the barman is convinced it is a non-starter. "It's not going to happen. Are you really going to have a situation where some old bloke who's been smoking for ages comes in and lights up, and someone is going to tell on him, or tell him to put it out?"

Let's hope he is right, for the sake of Ireland's bar staff, who might get cleaner air but would probably lose their jobs, and for the sake of the tourist industry, which is undoubtedly going to witness a downturn in fortunes.

But foremost, this legislation must be disobeyed to save the reputation of the Irish, who have always been admired as a people that love a good time and hate stupid laws. What a tragedy it would be if the country that gave us James Joyce, Brendan Behan and Shane MacGowan should end up as a joyless Bhutan-on-Sea.