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OPINION: Reilly's selflessness has come at a price

August 28th, 2017 12:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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DUMPED from the front bench by onetime pal, Dame Enda, former Health Minister James Reilly's crash dive continued with the loss of his Dáil seat. He's now ensconced in Seanad Éireann, that unique institution for parliamentary flops, where he's largely ignored. Politically, Reilly is yesterday's man.

And yet, as the minister responsible for protecting and promoting public health, he can be proud of what he achieved, unlike most of his FG contemporaries.  He waged war on the tobacco industry and saved lives. His selflessness, however, came at a price.

Here's why. He enthusiastically advanced an EU directive on plain packaging whereby all cigarette packets would look the same. No longer would they carry logos, graphics, trademarks or bright colours and, in their place, health warnings were to figure prominently. Now embedded in Irish law, the official policy on packaging will come into effect in September.

 

Threat to Ireland 

But, in attempting to achieve that goal, Reilly became a target of economic and political threats from vested interests. At the same time, he had to deal with home-grown lobbyists, some of whom doubled as TV celebrities. 

Reilly's crusade against cigarettes was triggered by nicotine related deaths in his family and by the fact that in Ireland 16 people die every day because of smoking –more than alcohol, suicides, road deaths and strokes combined

In response, the tobacco moguls used every trick in the book to protect the industry's ability to recruit new smokers and to obstruct him in his role as Ireland's Minister for Health. 

And it's not that Reilly was unprepared for the fight. In 2013,  British American Tobacco, the Imperial Tobacco Group and JT International warned the EU Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs of measures that would have a negative impact on the Irish economy. 

In an extraordinarily-aggressive declaration, the industry predicted an economic calamity if Reilly did not change his tune in regards to his anti-tobacco legislation. Yet leader Enda Kenny, for reasons best known to himself, chose not to take seriously the tobacco industry's pressure on our Health Minister.

 

Controversial letter

Interesting too (as this column highlighted at the time) that Reilly received a letter signed by 27 MEPs who expressed grave concern at his anti-smoking plans.  

All of the MEPs were in the European People's Party, a centre-right outfit in the European Parliament which, ironically, included Fine Gael. No public disclosure was made as to whether any of the FG MEPS signed the letter. 

Nor is it clear why the Fine Gael MEPs failed to support their ministerial colleague. Perhaps one of them might break ranks some day and tell us what their stance was on the vile campaign against their colleague, and why they didn't rush to his defence?

In the letter, the MEPs said the proposed legislation would open the door to illicit trade, encourage counterfeit products, restrict fair competition, undermine trademark protections, violate international agreements; all of which would result in a loss of investment and jobs. Furthermore, it would set a dangerous precedent for other industries and products. 

Interesting too that in 2013 the European Parliament was not in favour of extending the plain packaging of fags to all EU countries. Instead, the directive allowed states to adopt the legislation voluntarily – which Reilly promptly did on behalf of the people of Ireland. 

 

Held his nerve

To Reilly's credit, at no stage in his anti-smoking campaign did he buckle. He held his nerve even when the German Advertising Federation warned the Irish ambassador of devastating economic consequences for Irish companies.

Again, this was in sharp contrast to the attitude of his government colleagues who allowed the insulting threat of deliberately fabricated job losses pass without comment. 

Abandoned by his Blueshirt comrades, did any support at all come his way? Yes. People like Dr Ross Morgan, chairperson of the anti-smoking group, Ash Ireland, understood what Reilly was trying to do. He stated that MEPs who represented the interests of the tobacco industry should be resisted at every level.  

The Irish Cancer Society commented that ‘claims about illicit trade, job losses and slowing Ireland's economy were totally without foundation,' while the Asthma Society of Ireland said children's health was more important than tobacco profits. The Irish Heart Foundation also endorsed his campaign.

 

Minimum support

In the meantime, the position of the Irish government continued to be ambiguous.  It grudgingly tolerated the implementation of Reilly's anti-smoking law but, at the same time, Taoiseach Kenny, Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Justice Minister Alan Shatter welcomed members of the Irish Tobacco Manufacturers Advisory Committee (ITMACC) to a high level meeting whose primary objective was to discuss the valuable contribution the industry made to the Irish economy.

Chief lobbyist of that gang was the late Bill O'Herlihy, the sports commentator who had a long association with Fine Gael and was one of the national handlers for Garret Fitzgerald. O'Herlihy accused Dr Reilly of being ‘messianic' in his opposition to smoking. 

It was clear that Fine Gael's backing of Reilly was at a minimum level and, indeed, Kenny eventually sacked him. To be precise, he demoted Reilly to the Department of Children which was more or less the same thing.

All of which raises important questions as to why Fine Gael was loath to condemn serious outside meddling in government affairs. 

 

Rampant lobbying

The answer, perhaps, can be found in corporate lobbying – a systemic procedure for facilitating access to decision makers by EU business and industry interests and, clearly, a course of action that Fine Gael tolerates. Seeking favours from government is not as rampant here as in Brussels, where an estimated 25,000 lobbyists operate in return for very large sums of money.

In 2015, during a speech to the World Health Organisation in Abu Dhabi, James Reilly revealed some details of the pressure he had to endure. He said one tobacco company active in Ireland employed 161 lobbyists and spent millions of euros in its effort to disparage the EU directive relating to cigarette-packet legislation. 

‘We were lobbied on a scale that Irish politics had never seen before,' he said. ‘Not only  did they attempt to tell a sovereign government that we did not have the authority to enact plain-packaging legislation, they attempted to tell us how far we could progress it through our parliament and insisted that we provide them with a written undertaking – within a matter of days – not to progress it any further.'

Neither Kenny, Varadkar, nor any of the other flunkeys, considered Reilly's observations on the tobacco industry to be deserving of attention. They ignored him.

In the end, Reilly won but whereas Micheál Martin, when Health Minister, earned international acclaim for outlawing  smoking in public places, his FG counterpart encountered nothing but half-heartedness and apathy. His party simply let him down. Deliberately!

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