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Con Houlihan: Smoke out some real reform

Every man and woman and child is convinced that he or she could make a better hand of running the Republic than whoever is charged to do so. But if you were put to outlay practical dreams, you might be fumbling for a place to start.

The Indians, that is the Indians of the subcontinent in Asia, have a saying about truth being a marsh and that you must find some piece of solid ground before you can start to drain it.

If I had the exquisite torture of leading the Republic, my starting attempts would be to solve the problems that can be solved and which wouldn't cost the kind of money that, at least for the time being, we haven't got. The old Irish proverb would be invoked: "Always cut the knot nearest the throat."

When Jackie Healy-Rae made his first speech in Leinster House, some people thought he was very funny but there is nothing very funny about being murdered in your bed in some remote part of Ireland.

Jackie pointed out that in many parts of our country old people have to live alone and they are very vulnerable to being attacked and robbed. The number of those people is growing as a result of emigration of the younger generation and they should always be in our thoughts. Some people will say this is the politics of the parish pump and so it is -- but if every politician took care of his own area, the country as a whole would benefit and so would the world if this awareness spread.

The sensible way to safeguard those people who are alone and vulnerable is to increase the number of our gardai and to make them more mobile. We have as good a force as any in the world: all they require is better technology and better awareness of their importance.

Another aspect that would benefit is the carnage on the roads. We have heard much talk about it but little seems to have been done. Again, a vast sum of money is not needed but an increased Garda force and an increased public awareness could reduce the number of deaths. The television campaign that shows the result of crashes is of little avail: what we see are simulated accidents. It would be far better to see pictures of real accidents without including the more horrifying details.

Girls in the country and girls in small towns do not like to be seen smoking in public: when the girls don't go, the boys don't go. There is no uglier sight than groups of people smoking outside public houses. The results, too, can be ugly and the joke is that in obeying a law they are disobeying a law. They are littering. There is no easy way out of this problem but there are possible ways and some public houses are exemplary.

Micheal's introduction militates against the ordinary people. Many work a long day at some uncongenial task and look forward to stopping time so that they may enjoy the anodynes of alcohol and tobacco. They have been deprived of what many deem a basic human right.

There is another aspect of this group smoking outside pubs: martyrdom can create a powerful bond and marriages break up here just as they do in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous. This may sound very funny but is not.

Take the common experience of some man or woman who looks forward to beer and tobacco after the working day -- he cannot partake and when he gets home, he might be equally frustrated. This is a human problem and there is no reason why there shouldn't be a compromise.

We are living in a strange society: we are Neo-Puritans. We have the vices of Cromwell and his merry men but not their virtues. We need a moral revolution.

Another glaring example of compulsion is seen in the race for high marks in the Leaving Certificate. This has nothing to do with education: it is a nightmare for children and parents and teachers. Is there such a mad race in any other comparative country? We are producing a new breed of boys and girls who come out of school laden with very impressive marks but who lose interest in education as soon as they have qualified in whatever profession they nominated.

This new world is a travesty of education. It should never have happened if our governments hadn't failed to foresee that there would be a flood of students seeking third-level education as soon as Donogh O'Malley's revolution began to take effect. Our Brains Trusts were caught with their statistics down and the people are paying for it.

Another example of bad planning is seen in the proliferation of conifer trees that aren't much good in themselves and that are blighting the landscape. These treelings were imported from Scandinavia: they grow very fast and "mature" early and they do not make good timber. This problem needs to be remedied soon before the Government, as is their intention, sells off the operation to some foreign body who will make a bad situation worse.

Fogra: Thanks, not for the first time, go to the good men and women who presided over the voting in Synge Street last Friday