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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Members of the Thirteenth Dáil - Noël Browne

 The 1948 coalition cabinet after Mr John A Costello became the new Taoiseach in February. (Standing from left) D Morrissey, Minister for Industry and Commerce; J Everett, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs; P McGilligan, Minister for Finance; J Blowick, Minister for Lands; Gen. S MacEoin, Minister for Justice and James Dillon, Minister for Agriculture. (Seated, left to right): Dr Noel Browne, Minister for Health; Sean McBride, Minister for External Affairs; William Norton, Minister for Social Welfare; J A Costello; Gen. R Mulcahy, Minister for Education; Dr TF O'Higgins, Minister for Defence; T J Murphy, Minister for Local Government. 

Dr. Noël Browne

Noël Christopher Browne (20 December 1915 – 21 May 1997) was an Irish politician and doctor. He holds the distinction of being one of only five 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.

Browne was a well known but at times highly controversial public representative and managed to be a TD for five different political parties (two of which he co-founded). These were Clann na Poblachta (resigned), Fianna Fáil (expelled), National Progressive Democrats (co-founder), Labour Party (resigned) and the Socialist Labour Party (co-founder).

Noël Browne was born in Waterford and grew up in Derry, Athlone and Ballinrobe. His father worked as an inspector for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and, partly as a result of this work, all of the Browne family became infected with tuberculosis. Both parents died of the disease during the 1920s, and several of Browne's siblings also succumbed. In 1929 he was admitted free of charge to St. Anthony's, a preparatory school in Eastbourne, England. He then won a scholarship to Beaumont College, the Jesuit public school near Old Windsor, Berkshire, where he befriended Neville Chance, a wealthy boy from Dublin. Neville's father, the eminent surgeon Arthur Chance (son of surgeon, Sir Arthur Chance), subsequently paid Browne's way through medical school at Trinity College, Dublin.

In 1940, while still a student, Browne suffered a serious resurgence of tuberculosis. His treatment at a sanatorium in Midhurst, Sussex was paid for by the Chance family. He recovered, passed his medical exams in 1942, and started his career as a medical intern at Dr Steevens' Hospital in Dublin. He subsequently 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 for the Dublin South–East constituency at the 1948 general election. To the surprise of many, party leader Seán 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.

A White Paper report on health had been prepared by the previous government, and resulted in the Health Act, 1947. In February 1948 Browne became Minister for Health and started the reforms advocated by the paper and introduced by the Act.

The health reform coincided with the development of a new vaccine and of new drugs (e.g. BCG and penicillin) that helped to treat a previously untreatable group of medical conditions. Browne introduced mass free screening for tuberculosis sufferers and sold department assets to finance his campaign. This, with the introduction of Streptomycin, helped dramatically reduce the incidence of tuberculosis in Ireland.

However, during his term as Minister for Health, Browne would come in conflict with the Catholic Church and the medical profession over the Mother and Child Scheme. This plan, also introduced by the 1947 Health Act, provided for free state-funded healthcare for all mothers and children aged under 16, with no means test, a move which was regarded as radical at the time in Ireland, but not in most of Europe. The Church ran most hospitals and resented the idea that a "public body" could run them as well.

Browne's resignation speech to the Dáil was made on 12 April 1951, giving his version of events. In particular he deplored that the government had passed on his Scheme to the Church for approval, taking care to describe it to the Church as his plan and not as government policy, giving him no option but to resign as minister. The Taoiseach, John A. Costello, immediately retorted that - ".. I have seldom listened to a statement in which there were so many—let me say it as charitably as possible—inaccuracies, misstatements and misrepresentations", and delivered his full reply several hours later.

The ultimate result of this conflict was to remove him from mainstream politics. He resigned with effect on 11 April 1951 as Minister for Health. Browne was even expelled from Clann na Poblachta, which was considered quite a radical party, and was re-elected to the Dáil as an Independent TD in the subsequent election. Browne had earlier also managed to disobey the Catholic hierarchy in 1949 when he was the only minister to attend the Church of Ireland funeral of Douglas Hyde, first President of Ireland.

Although many viewed his Mother and Child Scheme as a failure, much of his required policies were eventually introduced by the following Fianna Fáil government. This incident involving Browne did, however, indicate the influence of the Catholic Church in Irish politics at the time.

In 1953 Browne joined Fianna Fáil but lost his Dáil seat at the 1954 general election and was later expelled from the party. At the 1957 general election 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 at the 1961 general election but in 1963 he and McQuillan joined the Labour Party, disbanding the National Progressive Democrats. 

However, Browne lost his seat at the 1965 general election. He was re-elected as a Labour Party TD at the 1969 general election. He failed to be nominated by the Labour Party for the 1973 general election but instead he won a seat in Seanad Éireann before being expelled from the Labour Party. He remained in the Seanad until the 1977 general election when he gained a Dáil seat as an Independent TD, before becoming involved in the Socialist Labour Party and was briefly its only TD. Browne retired from politics at the February 1982 general election.

 In 1990, a number of left wing representatives within the Labour Party, led by Michael D. Higgins, approached Browne and suggested that he should be the party's candidate fot 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." 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 and was considered highly popular during her term. During the campaign he also indicated support for the rival Fine Gael candidate, Austin Currie.

Few figures in 20th century Ireland were as controversial as Noël Browne. To his supporters he was a dynamic liberal who stood up to conservative and reactionary Catholicism. To his opponents he was an unstable, temperamental 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.

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". 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".

However some of this "difficulty" arose from the fact that Noël Browne was deaf in one ear from an infection several years previous. He also suffered numerous attacks of T.B. throughout his career, a fact which he kept private. However, he rarely showed this, unpleasant, side of himself to the public.

After retiring from Dáil Éireann, Browne retired to Baile na hAbhann, County Galway with his wife Phyllis, where he died on 21 May 1997 at age 81.

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