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Noel Browne

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Noel Browne (20 December 1915-21 May 1997) was an Irish politician and doctor. He holds the distinction of being one of only five Teachta Dálas (TDs) to be appointed Minister on their first day in the Dáil. His controversial Mother and Child Scheme in effect brought down the First Inter-Party Government of John A. Costello in 1951.

Noel Browne was born on 20 December 1915 in Waterford. He father was a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Browne was educated in Athlone and Ballinrobe as his father travelled around the country. Both his parents died as a result of tuberculosis during the twenties. In 1929 he was admitted free of charge to a preparatory school in Eastbourne, England. He then won a scholarship to public school and befriended a Neville Chance, a wealthy boy from Dublin. His family paid Browne's way through medical school in Trinity College.

In 1940 Browne contracted tuberculosis himself, but was treated in an English sanatorium. He recovered and passed his medical exams in 1942. He worked in numerous sanatoria throughout Ireland and England, witnessing the ravages of the disease. He soon concluded that politics was the only way in which he could make an attack on the scourge of tuberculosis. Browne joined the new Irish republican party Clann na Poblachta and was elected to Dáil Éireann in 1948. To the surprise of many, party leader Sean MacBride picked Browne to be one of the party's two ministers in the Government. Browne became one of the few TDs appointed a minister on their first day in Dáil Éireann, when he was appointed Minister for Health.

Contents

Anti-tuberculosis campaign

A White Paper report on health had been prepared by the previous government in 1946. Browne now set about implementing the changes it advocated. His health campaign, much of the work of which had been carried out by previous former Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Secretary (junior minister) for Health, Dr. Conor Ward, coincided with the development of new drugs that eliminated long hospital stays and the extent of disease. He introduced mass free screening for tuberculosis sufferers and sold department assets to finance his campaign, which helped dramatically reduce the incidence of tuberculosis in Ireland.

The "Mother and Child Scheme"

In 1950 Browne proposed introducing a scheme which would provide free maternity care for all mothers and free medical care for all children up to the age of sixteen, regardless of income. The Mother and Child Scheme as it became known, was based on the contents of the Health Act, 1947 introduced by his Fianna Fáil predecessor, James Ryan. It met with ferocious opposition from conservative elements in the Catholic hierarchy and the medical profession. The Catholic Church leadership was divided between those like Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid who believed that it was the exclusive right of every parent to provide health care for their child, and younger moderates like Bishop William Philbin who saw some merit in state assistance to families. Some bishops, like McQuaid, also feared that it could pave the way for abortion and birth control. Through some Church leaders privately were sympathetic to Browne and wished to reach an accommodation, what was viewed as Browne's tactless handling of the Church forced the moderates into silence, allowing the anti-Mother & Child Scheme members of the hierarchy under McQuaid to set the agenda.Template:Ref

Many doctors disapproved of the scheme, some on principle, others because they feared a loss of income, referring to the plan as "socialised medicine". Browne refused to back down on the issue but received little support even from his Cabinet colleagues, most of whom he had alienated on other matters, notably his failure to attend many cabinet meetings and the lack of support he had shown them in other crises. Isolated in cabinet as a 'loner' who did not consult with his more experienced cabinet colleagues,Template:Ref he also faced the hostility of his own party leader, Sean MacBride, with whom Browne had also fallen out, as he had with most members of the Clann na Poblachta Parliamentary Party, who resented his appointment to cabinet over the heads of more senior colleagues, and who were also offended by his treatment of them. Template:Ref

In April 1951 MacBride demanded Browne's resignation as a Clann na Poblachta minister . Browne duly submitted his resignation to the Taoiseach John A. Costello for submission to President O'Kelly.Template:Ref

In his resignation statement, Browne told the House

I had been led to believe that my insistence on the exclusion of a means test had the full support of my colleagues in the Government. I now know that it had not. Furthermore, the Hierarchy has informed the Government that they must regard the mother and child scheme proposed by me as opposed to Catholic social teaching. This decision I, as a Catholic, immediately accepted without hesitation. Template:Ref

In the subsequent Dáil debate on the resignation, Tánaiste and Labour Party leader William Norton claimed:

. . . if this matter had been handled with tact, with understanding and with forbearance by the Minister responsible, I believe we would not have had the situation which has been brought about to-day.Template:Ref

Dr. Browne explained his approach to the Dáil by saying

I might say that my question to their Lordships was: Is this contrary to Catholic moral teaching? The reply, as you all know, was that it is contrary to Catholic social teaching. I was not aware—the Taoiseach can verify this-until I had asked each member of the Cabinet separately what he proposed to do, what he had been given to understand by Dr. McQuaid when that decision was taken. He then told us that that morning he had been informed by Dr. McQuaid that Catholic social teaching and Catholic moral teaching were one and the same thing Template:Ref

The following month an election was called. Browne was expelled from Clann na Poblachta and was elected to the Dáil as an Independent TD.

Some of the Mother and Child Scheme was implemented subsequently by the Fianna Fáil government which won the 1951 general election.

Expelled from Fianna Fáil, NPDs and Labour

In 1953 Browne joined Fianna Fáil but lost his Dáil seat in the 1954 election. He was later expelled from Fianna Fáil. In 1957 he was re-elected as an Independent TD. In 1958 he founded the National Progressive Democrats with Jack McQuillan. Browne held on to his seat in the 1961 election but was expelled from the National Progressive Democrats. In 1963 he joined the Labour Party, however, he lost his seat in the 1965 election. He was re-elected as a Labour TD in 1969. He failed to be nominated by the Labour Party for the 1973 election but instead he won a seat in Seanad Éireann before being expelled from the Labour Party. He remained in the Seanad until 1977 when he gained a Dáil seat as an Independent TD, before setting up the Socialist Labour Party and becoming its only TD. Browne retired from politics in the February 1982 general election.

Offer of presidential candidacy

In 1990 some left-wing member of the Labour Party approached Browne and suggested that he should be the party's candidate in the 1990 presidential election due later that year. Though in failing health Browne agreed. However the offer horrified party leader Dick Spring and his close associates for two reasons. Firstly the leadership had secretly decided to run former senator and barrister Mary Robinson. Secondly, many around Spring were "appalled" at the idea of running Browne, believing he had "little or no respect for the party" and "was likely in any event to self-destruct as a candidate."Template:Ref When Browne was informed by Spring by telephone that the Party's Administrative Council had chosen Robinson over him, he hung up on him. He spent the remaining seven years of his life constantly criticising Robinson, who had gone on to win the election and become the seventh President of Ireland. During the campaign he also indicated support for the rival Fine Gael candidate, Austin Currie.Template:Ref

Personality

Few figures in 20th century Ireland were as controversial as Noel Browne. To his supporters he was a dynamic liberal who stood up to conservative and reactionary Catholicism. To his opponents he was an unstable, tempermental and difficult individual who was the author of most of his own misfortune. Browne further alienated the middle ground in 1986 with the publishing of his autobiography Against the Tide. Historians like Dr. Ruth Barrington, who had written extensively about Irish health policy and had access to the files from the 1940s and 1950s, questioned the book's reliability.Template:Ref

Popular opinion took offence at a series of what were seen as crude and unfair charactures given of his opponents. One in particular, a description of the eating habits and desire for cakes of obese cabinet colleague and bitter opponent William Norton, backfired when it was revealed that the man's weight and desire for sweet foods was linked to his diabetes, a fact Browne as a medical doctor was well aware of but never mentioned in the book. The families of his colleagues, all of whom except Séan MacBride were dead, publicly attacked Browne's treatment of their relatives, as did the media.

Writing a decade later, one of the chief officials of the Labour Party, Fergus Finlay, said Browne had developed into a "bad tempered and curmudgeonly old man."Template:Ref

Historian and political scientist Maurice Manning wrote that Browne

had the capacity to inspire fierce loyalty, but many of those who worked with and against him over the years found him difficult, self-centred, unwilling to accept the good faith of his opponents and often profoundly unfair in his intolerance of those who disagreed with him.Template:Ref

After retiring from Dáil Éireann Browne retired to Baile na hAbhann, County Galway with his wife Phylis, where he died on 21 May 1997.

Footnotes

  1. Template:Note According to James Dillon, Browne's cabinet colleague, he had a quiet word with the moderate Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Walsh, in an attempt to diffuse the row. Walsh agreed to try to calm down the controversy and would secretly meet Browne. When Dillon told Browne, Browne went down to Walsh's residence without first arranging an appointment. Walsh was away on Church business. In what Dillon saw as a disastrous error, Browne travelled to meet the neighbouring bishop, Dr. DignaN, a "lunatic" in Dillon's view and one of Browne's most trenchant critics. They had an argument that inflamed the situation, while in revealing that he had originally gone down to see Walsh Browne compromised the position of the potential go-between, who was forced to row in reluctantly with his more hardline colleagues.
  2. Template:Note Gabriel Kelly et al (eds), Irish Social Policy in Context (UCD Press, 1999) p.29.
  3. Template:Note Maurice Manning, James Dillon: A Biography (Wolfhound Press, 2000) p.228.
  4. Template:Note Statement of Án Taoiseach, John A. Costello to Dáil Éireann following Noel Browne's resignation. Vol 125 Dáil Éireann Col 641- (http://historical-debates.oireachtas.ie/D/0125/D.0125.195104110052.html) 11 April 1951
  5. Template:Note Resignation Statement of Noel Browne TD Vol 125 Dail Debate Col 667 (http://historical-debates.oireachtas.ie/D/0125/D.0125.195104120041.html) 12 April 1951
  6. Template:Note Vol 125 Dáil Debates Col 954. 17 April 1951
  7. Template:Note Vol 125 Dáil Debates Col 947-948. 17 April 1951
  8. Template:Note Fergus Finlay, Snakes and Ladders (New Island Books, 1998) p.84.
  9. Template:Note Lorna Siggins, The Woman Who Took Power in the Park (Mainstream Publishing, 1997) p.133.
  10. Template:Note Many other writers also disputed his claims. His claims about the relationship between ministers came in for universal dismissal. For example, he claimed a poor relationship existed between Dan Morrissey and James Dillon, with the latter showing contempt for the former and humiliating him at cabinet meetings. All other witnesses, including colleagues (especially Dillon himself and then Chief Whip and future Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave) civil servants and contemporary records suggest that both men had a close friendship and superb relationship. Browne's account of the events surrounding the declaration of the Republic, including a supposed offer of the Taoiseach to resign, is also disputed by all the other witnesses. No record of the Taoiseach's supposed resignation offer exists.
  11. Template:Note Fergus Finlay, op.cit p.84.
  12. Template:Note Maurice Manning, op.cit p.228.

Political Parties Browne was a member of

  • Clann na Poblachta (expelled)
  • Fianna Fáil (expelled)
  • National Progressive Democrats (co-founder of, expelled)
  • Labour Party (expelled)
  • Socialist Labour Party

Ministerial Career

Preceded by:
James Ryan
Minister for Health
1948-1951
Succeeded by:
John A. Costello

References

  • Noel Browne, Against the Tide (Gill & Macmillan) ISBN 0717114589 (out of print)
  • Ruth Barrington, Health, Medicine and Politics in Ireland 1900-1970 (Institute of Public Administration, 1987) ISBN 0906980720
  • Fergus Finlay, Snakes and Ladders (New Island Books, 1998) ISBN 1874597766
  • Gabriel Kelly et al (eds), Irish Social Policy in Context (UCD Press, 1999) ISBN 1900621258
  • Maurice Manning, James Dillon: A Biography (Wolfhound Press, 2000) ISBN 086327823X
  • Lorna Siggins, The Woman Who Took Power in the Park (Mainstream Publishing, 1997) ISBN 1851588051

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