11 April 1951: Dr. Noel Browne 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. 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 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.
Browne’s resignation was a huge embarrassment to the Government as he was very popular 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!