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Obituary: Dr Noel Browne

Alan Murdoch The Independent (UK), Friday, 23 May 1997

Noel Browne's place in Irish history is inextricably bound up with one infamous political convulsion, his bitterly opposed post-war plan for a state-run health service, the Mother and Child Scheme. Its lingering wound has left demarcation lines in Ireland's domestic politics for almost five decades.

Browne had qualified in medicine at Trinity College Dublin (his first post was at St Steeven's Hospital in the city). His mission on entering politics as a member of the radical left-leaning Clann na Poblachta party in 1948 was deeply marked by the experiences of his poverty-stricken family, which was ravaged by tubercolosis, rife in Ireland until the Fifties. He suffered badly from the disease, diagnosed in both lungs in 1939, but survived. His father and two of his seven siblings did not.

Browne senior, an inspector with the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, moved from Waterford to Londonderry and Athlone in the Irish midlands. He died when Noel was seven, leaving Noel's mother, Mary Therese, with a large family to rear in deprived conditions. She herself died two years later, leaving her children to be fostered out.

The scars left by this fuelled the young man's political objectives in public health as the country's most urgent need when he joined former republicans in the reforming Clann na Poblachta party in the mid-Forties.

His campaigning for an urgent anti-tubercolisis programme propelled him into the post of health minister when the new party, led by Sean McBride, joined the inter-party coalition led by Fine Gael in government in 1948. Though just 32, he was a crusading and dynamic innovator, using hospital sweepstakes funding (ticket revenues came from the US and Britain as well as Ireland) to fund a network of sanatoria to exploit the possibilities opened by the arrival of BCG vaccine. He also set up the first Irish national blood transfusion service.

Admirers say his freshness to politics helped him break new ground. But fellow ministers reportedly found him petulant, unwilling to listen, and convinced he was always right. There was probably some truth in both.

Browne, taking up proposals first mapped out by the previous Fianna Fail government, aimed to tackle unacceptable levels of child mortality by bringing in free ante-and post- natal care for mothers and extending free health treatment for all children under 16 without a means test. But he found himself up against a powerful opposition that spanned GPs concerned their incomes might be threatened, and colleagues in government who in turn were probably under pressure from lay Catholic elements.

He had failed to prepare the ground with the Cabinet, who were unaware of the details of the scheme when it was launched in March 1951. He had also made the error of thinking that, after meeting with senior Catholic clergy in October 1950, their concerns had all been assuaged. Far from declaring war on the Church, however, he was intent on accommodating it and thought he was operating within the parameters of what it would accept.

Some believe that doctors were behind the drawing of bishops into the row, while John Charles McQuaid, the powerful Archbishop of Dublin, was himself a doctor's son with strong views about the status of the profession. When their views were invited the bishops avoided stating whether the plan was at odds with Catholic morality but denounced it as at variance with the Church's social teaching.

At the root of their opposition was the perception that Browne's scheme would open the way to liberal family planning and contraception. Taoiseach John A. Costello and McBride had in the meantime come to dislike their abrasive health minister and opposition leaders suspected they were only too glad to hasten his exit, forcing him to resign on 11 April 1951. He was followed out in sympathy by two fellow MPs.

The actual demise of the weakened coalition in the general election of May 1951 was not decided by the Mother and Child Scheme, however, but by the desertion of rural Independents over its failure to raise the price of milk.

But McBride's mishandling of the health affair effectively ended his own political ambitions and, some argue, closed off the opening to the left in Irish politics for more than 20 years.

Afterwards Browne became an isolated embittered figure, a political gypsy, in the historian John A. Murphy's words, "moving from party to party that would restore his dream of creating a socially just Ireland".

After leaving government Browne took care of patients in a TB sanatorium in County Wicklow. He had spells in Fianna Fail, founded a short-lived group called the National Progressive Democrats in 1958, spent some years in Labour before forming a now defunct hard-left party, the Socialist Labour Party, after moving from south Dublin to the more working-class north-side suburb of Artan in the mid-Seventies. After retiring to Connemara in County Galway he published a moving account of his family's tragedies and his own career, Against the Tide, in 1986.

Among his burning concerns was what he saw as the cynical Irish establishment acceptance of mass emigration. This elicited a late reminder of his caustic invective last year. After Mary Robinson's 1990 election as state President, she placed a symbolic lamp in the window of her official residence as a reminder of all of those forced to leave Ireland to seek work.

Accusing her of being part of a comfortable elite, he said her "fatuous, low-watt, low- powered, cheapest-available, warmly welcoming electrical candle brought no comfort to our diaspora". Speaking after one of his daughters returned overseas after a Christmas visit, he said, "I have very personal knowledge of emigration. My mother and seven of her children emigrated. My brother died in a workhouse and my mother was buried in a pauper's grave.

"We Irish have the second- highest ethnic group in `Cardboard City' in London. We are in the prisons, the jails, the mental hospitals, the alcoholic wards, the brothels, the kitchens of cheap-labour hotels, the building sites, the dole queues, the skid rows of the world, too poor to come home for Christmas."

Alan Murdoch

Noel Browne, politician and psychiatrist: born Waterford 20 December 1915; TD (MP) (Clann na Poblachta) for Dublin South-East 1948-51, (Independent) 1951-54, 1957-65, 1969-73, (Socialist Labour Party) for Dublin North-Central 1981-82; Minister for Health 1948-51; married 1944 Phyllis Harrison (two daughters); died Galway 22 May 1997.