Two hundred pub owners in the southwest county of Kerry voted to reject Health Minister Micheal Martin's order that all workplaces must become smoke-free from Jan. 1 onward. Industry chiefs predicted more regional revolts — making the proposed ban unenforceable — unless Martin backed down.
But Martin said he wasn't willing to compromise on the issue of making bar workers inhale customers' cigarette smoke. He said pubs could face fines of up to $2,100 if they let people light up inside their establishments.
Martin said research had proven that second-hand smoke was "a killer, and we've got to act to protect people. The law will be applied to all establishments and that's the bottom line."
John O'Sullivan, chairman of an association that represents the Kerry pub owners, said members voted unanimously to ignore Martin's instructions and to create special areas for smokers in their pubs. Two hundred of the 380 association members attended the ballot meeting at a local hotel.
O'Sullivan, who owns the Munster Bar in the Kerry town of Tralee, said he planned to cut his pub in two by erecting double doors and leave half for smokers, who he said represented half of his customers. Like other Kerry publicans, he planned to ask customers not to smoke within a yard of the bar to safeguard workers' lungs, a measure dismissed by Martin as hopelessly inadequate.
But O'Sullivan said he wasn't worried about Martin's threats. He'd rather be fined, he said, than lose an estimated 30 percent of his business.
"In this country we've had 800 years of oppression from a foreign power. Perhaps we might be rebellious by nature," O'Sullivan said. "We don't expect Micheal Martin to bend just yet. But bend he will once he feels the tide of public opinion."
A maverick Kerry lawmaker, Jackie Healy-Rae, said he backed the rebellion — and didn't think he could get his customers to stop smoking even if he wanted to.
"No matter what Micheal Martin says, he can't compel me to do something that I'm not able to do," said Healy-Rae, who also owns a pub.
The Vintners Federation of Ireland, which represents 6,500 pub owners nationwide, published results Friday from a controversial survey of bar staff which it claimed shows overwhelming support for a compromise plan on smoking.
The survey by Dublin-based polling firm Lansdowne Market Research, found that more than 70 percent of bar employees support their bosses' preference for retaining areas specifically for smokers and installing better ventilation systems. The telephone poll, involving 350 workers at pubs in seven counties questioned from Sept. 18 to Sept. 20, didn't specify its margin of error.
Mandate, the union that represents bar workers, called the survey an act of intimidation — and urged Martin to protect workers' health.
"What employee would feel comfortable answering this questionnaire with his employer looking over his shoulder?" said Mandate spokesman John Douglas. "We appeal to Minister Martin to pursue any publican who refuses to ban smoking to the full rigor of the law."
But the Vintners Federation chairman, Tadg O'Sullivan, predicted that publicans in Cork, Limerick, Galway and other western Irish towns would be likely to join the Kerry uprising.
"We must have compromise, otherwise we will really have serious difficulties across the country," he said.
Like the country as a whole, the governing Fianna Fail party is divided over Martin's ban plan. More than a quarter of party lawmakers, including a Cabinet minister and two junior ministers, say they oppose it.
Some Dublin pubs have already begun to accommodate the law and smokers alike — by installing wall-mounted ashtrays outside their premises and creating outdoor dining and drinking areas heated by gas-fueled radiators.