11 April 1951: Dr. Noel Browne [above] resigned from John A. Costello’s Coalition Government as Minister of Health on this day. It was seminal moment in Modern Irish Politics. To many people it looked like the Catholic Church was dictating Government policy from the outside.
Browne had been elected a TD in 1948 and was appointed the Minister of Health on his first day in the House. Given his medical background and his work in sanatoriums both in Ireland and England he was the right man in the right place at the right time. He was a survivor of TB himself – a disease of the lungs that had claimed both his parents. Though the previous Government had already laid much of the groundwork it was Browne who provided the drive and energy to ensure that the job of eradicating the disease as a killer of thousands of Irish people every year was properly carried out. The late 1940s also saw the availability of powerful new drugs that could save many sufferers from death. Never a man to worry too much about trodden toes and ruffled feathers he brought a single-minded determinism to the problem that got results.
But while he had many qualities Browne also had quite a few faults especially as a Party colleague. He was not a good team player and not a master of the art of compromise. He alienated many of his fellow members of the Cabinet including his Party Leader Sean McBride of Clann na Poblachta. His Nemesis was his mishandling of the controversial ‘Mother and Child’ scheme which was intended to provide State support for mothers and children. This raised the hackles of many within the Catholic Hierarchy and the powerful Irish Medical Association (IMO). Many of them saw it as undermining their power and influence though quite a few were sympathetic to the general trust of the proposed Legislation if it was done in a way right to their eyes. However Browne’s hamfisted attempts to influence the Church and Archbishop Charles McQuaid in particular backfired. When he turned to his colleagues at the Cabinet table for support little or none was forthcoming and he felt he was being hung out to dry.
In his resignation speech he stated that::
Since becoming Minister for Health I have striven within the limits of my ability to improve the health services of the country. Some progress has been made but much remains to be done. It is perhaps only human that I should wish to have the honour of continuing the work. However that is not to be. To me the provision of a health scheme for the benefit of the mothers and children of our nation seems to be the very foundation stone of any progressive health service without which much of our efforts in other directions would prove fruitless. It seemed equally important to me that any such scheme to be effective and indeed just should be made available free to all our people who choose of their own free will to use it without the imposition of any form of means test. On this point did I stand firm in my negotiations with the medical profession. On other matters I was willing and, indeed, eager that the profession should from their knowledge and experience play their full part in improving the scheme.
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. At the same time I do not feel that I could be instrumental in introducing a scheme which would be subject to a means test. Apart from my personal views about a means test I feel that in taking the decision which I have had to take, as a man privileged to hold my high office, there is another principle to which I had to have regard. I have pledged myself to the public and to the Clann na Poblachta Party to introduce a mother and child health scheme which would not embody a means test. Since I could not succeed in fulfilling my promise in this regard I consider it my duty to vacate my office.
While, as I have said, I as a Catholic accept unequivocally and unreservedly the views of the Hierarchy on this matter, I have not been able to accept the manner in which this matter has been dealt with by my former colleagues in the Government.
Browne’s resignation was a huge embarrassment to the Government as he was very popular as his record of getting results in the improvement of the Public Health could hardly be questioned. Whatever about the niceties or otherwise of the political infighting involved there is no doubt that Browne won the battle with the hearts and minds of the Irish People on this one. Though Costello’s First Coalition did not fall over this controversy its authority was severely weakened and it fell the following month - over of all things the price to be placed on a bottle of milk!