Striking, matchless hypocrisy to target farmer having a fag
Ah, Northern Ireland, the spiritual home of petty rules-mongers and small-town sheriffs. We truly are the place that loves to say no. Don't touch, keep out, clean up, stay back - and if you don't comply with our strictures to the very letter we'll hit you where it hurts, right in the pocket.
Now a hapless farmer has fallen victim to the punitive, ever-vigilant bureaucrats, their eyes (and spies) trained on the populace at large in case anyone might infringe an obscure bye-law.
The poor guy had pulled his tractor into a petrol station in Co Antrim and was having a quiet smoke in the cab of his vehicle. I'm not a smoker myself, but I bet that cigarette felt good. Times are tough for farmers and this was a small comfort, perhaps, in a long, exhausting day - who knows? What we do know, though, is that the farmer was not alone. He was being covertly watched, by a 'tobacco control officer' employed by Antrim and Newtownabbey Council. Next thing the farmer received an official missive detailing the alleged 'offence' and threatening him with a fine of up to £1,000 for smoking in the workplace.
Apparently, because tractors are deemed to be commercial vehicles capable of carrying more than one person, the tractor driver was in breach of the smoking ban, which councils are expected to enforce.
Farmers Union representatives have already pointed out that many older tractors are one-person vehicles, so the renegade puffer, who reportedly found the situation even more excruciating because his wife didn't know that he smoked, may well have been putting nobody's health at risk but his own. Of course - but since when has common sense prevailed in situations like this?
What's missing is an intelligent interpretation and application of the law. This is what local officials frequently omit. They're so obsessed with law enforcement that the rules themselves, not the people they are designed to protect - in this case employees in the workplace - become the point.
Such an approach appeals strongly to the inner tyrant of council zealots, the barely-hidden impulse to boss people about that probably drew them into their jobs in the first place. We saw the same excessively controlling mentality at work when Mid and East Antrim Borough Council tried to impose dog exclusion zones on almost 100 areas under its jurisdiction. Fortunately, a public backlash forced it to think again.
Of course, Northern Ireland isn't the exclusive habitat of the lesser-spotted municipal dictator. There's clearly a whole swarm of them fluttering around in Brighton and Hove Council, which wants to ban smoking in its parks and beaches. It says that children exposed to passive smoke are "at higher risk of respiratory infections, asthma, bacterial meningitis and cot death". That's true if you're saturating kids with smoke in an enclosed environment like a car or a room, which is highly irresponsible, but you can't apply the same logic to parks and beaches. At risk of stating the bleedin' obvious, such places are outside. You know, where smoke blows away, causing harm to no one, whatever their age.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of our own legislative landscape is its unspoken policy of selective enforcement. For instance, it's a particular irony of this place that a Belfast artist can be served with a council fine for repeatedly writing the word 'love' in rainbow-coloured chalk - yes, chalk, the stuff that washes off in the rain - on the pavement, yet any amount of kerbstones can be painted red, white and blue with impunity. I imagine, too, that if I decided to build a towering bonfire at the end of my street that put all my neighbours' homes and property at risk, I would be prevented from doing so in the interests of public safety. Or would the authorities facilitate my project, at great expense, by getting the fire brigade to spray the houses so they didn't burst into flames?
At one end of the scale we see extraordinarily flagrant breaches of the law, like the recent pantomime INLA parade in Derry following the funeral of Peggy O'Hara, apparently tolerated, or at least not prevented, while at the other end ordinary, law-abiding individuals are punished for minor incursions. So if you're a dog-walker, artist or a farmer wanting a sneaky puff, the message is no, no, no.
Stick on a paramilitary mask, though, and it seems that you can do whatever you want.