It's ironic that so soon after writing a nostalgic piece about Irish pubs and their place in society, that I should now be penning the following. Perhaps the threads of these ideas were just floating around un-connected for a while.
Wearing my "Forest Ireland" hat over the years I have spoken to many publicans about the smoking ban in Ireland and the effect it had on their business. There seemed to be pretty uniform agreement that it was devastating and it started the rot. With the closures we have seen, then it's a no-brainer that it was a deadly blow to the pub industry.
But the devil is always in the detail so when I asked more closely about what action they took to fight the ban pre-2004, things become a bit more evasive and hazy. I heard talk of meetings with their representative body and representations to local politicians but it was all very muted and gentlemanly. Closer probing on my part always met the brick wall of, "Well it's in now so we just have to get on with it."
I never put two and two together at the time but it is becoming apparent to me now that what really was happening is quite different to what we have been told. Far from fighting the ban, the publicans fought among themselves. It seems that the major issue for pub-owners was that there could not be any exceptions to the ban when, and if it came in. If smoking in the boozer was to be banned then it had to banned in all boozers. One owner called it a level playing pitch.
In 2012 I did a media tour around the Country under the headline, "Why can't we have comfortable smoking rooms?" In the course of this trip I visited a huge pub in Galway and the barman there showed me not one, but two massive smoking rooms INSIDE the place. They had a nightclub license for late-night drinking and the guy told me it was wall-to-wall every weekend in the smoking rooms. He went so far as to say that they'd have to close down if they didn't have them.
So I ambled across the street to a smaller pub and the owner was behind the bar. He was morose and told me his business was on its last legs. I asked if it would help him to have a smoking room and he snapped at me that of course it would but he explained that he was land-locked. This meant that he had buildings attached either side and no back yard he could cover. A smoking room has to be separate from the bar just in case a wisp of smoke escapes and all of the innocent non-smokers, (who aren't there anyway), will suddenly fall off their perches. The council charged a fortune for tables and chairs on the street outside so he just could not facilitate the smoking clientele and off they went. As a result, he wanted the smoking ban more heavily policed, specifically nodding in the direction of the place I'd just seen opposite him.
It led me to pose the question to all the other publicans I met on the tour. I asked directly, "If you were permitted to do so, would you open a smoking room?" Even I was surprised by the answers. About a third would jump at the chance, a third were like the other guy and didn't have the appropriate space for one and the final third hadn't the finance necessary. From that, admittedly unscientific poll, you could deduce that two-thirds of publicans would o't support smoking rooms. Isn't that amazing?
On that tour I debated on live radio and TV with many of the big-wigs in the Anti-smoking Racket," and unsurprisingly all were adamantly against comfortable smoking rooms. But I never suspected the publicans themselves would also be because I assumed their unspoken support for their lost customers. I had forgotten the golden rule about vested interests and the competition for business between the publicans themselves. Apparently they were prepared to have their cash take drop by a half to there-quarters on the basis that they were all in the same boat. I find that self-defeating and short-sighted.
The publicans were the only group in society who could have successfully opposed the ban itself and stopped it happening in the way it did but I am now coming around to the opinion that instead, they were happy to fuck the smokers out onto the streets and to hell with them. I'd truly hate to believe that but I confess to tending in that direction. Should I settle on that view then I will have to review my own unwavering support for the pub industry, even if that is as stupid as their stance. Loyalty works both ways, doesn't it? Meanwhile should the 800,000 smokers have doubts about the motives of the 3,000 publicans and vice versa, the Anti-smoking Racket will be ensuring that the smokers drink at home with cheap alcohol bought from the supermarkets. They look like they want the vapors to stay at home also.
It's all just so impractical!