Irish health minister gets St Patrick’s Festival underway in Prague

Photo: CTK

Monday is the Irish national holiday St Patrick’s Day, but the 11th Prague St Patrick’s Festival is already underway. The special guest at Thursday morning’s opening was Ireland’s minister for health, Mary Harney. I spoke to Minister Harney about Ireland’s pioneering smoking ban, the country’s cabinet jetting around the world for St Patrick’s Day – and the impact of foreign workers from the Czech Republic and elsewhere on the Irish economy in recent years.

“Our economic success is very dependent on many of those workers. They’ve contributed about one percent of the economic growth we’ve experienced. They account for 10 percent of the workforce, which is a huge number for a country like ours which traditionally had mass emigration and mass unemployment.

“Opening our borders has been a very good thing for Ireland. Not just economically but also culturally. I think we’re learning a lot…the new people that have come to live in Ireland, particularly those that have come from central and eastern Europe, are enriching our country, with their culture and commitment and their determination.

“They’re very much like the Irish of the past, who when they came away wanted to work really hard to put a new life together. We’re delighted that we’re able to contribute to that.”

We’re here in an Irish pub in Prague. People can smoke here. People couldn’t smoke in an Irish pub in Ireland itself – Ireland has been a pioneer in this area, introducing a smoking ban in 2004. The Czech Parliament is currently discussing that issue – what would your advice be to Czech politicians, from the Irish experience?

“I’m always very reluctant to give advice to other politicians in other countries, because democracy is about the people’s representatives making those decisions. But I have to say as health minister there’s a huge correlation between illness and death and smoking. Half of all smokers will die from a smoking related illness.

“Clearly the smoking ban in Ireland has had a hugely powerful impact. It will take a while for it to impact on the health system. But we can already see that the work atmosphere is a lot healthier. Everybody is impressed, and in fact many smokers themselves feel that it has helped them to reduce the number of cigarettes they were smoking.

“Ireland is winning awards from all over the world, from the American Cancer Society and others. And we’re delighted to have been a leader in this field.”

I know you’re here in Prague for a few days. Is it the case that basically the whole of the Irish cabinet travels to different places around the world for St Patrick’s Day? Why is that and is it a new thing?

Photo: CTK
“No, it’s been going on for many, many years. The first St Patrick’s Day parade was held in New York in 1700 and something. But Irish government ministers for the last 20 years have been going right around the globe.

“In the past the focus was very much on the UK and perhaps the United States, where there was a huge Irish…family, a huge Irish population.

“But in more recent years our efforts have been focused on central and eastern Europe, on Asia, in places where we’re forging new links and developing new markets and opportunities for Irish companies.”