The illusion of power

IT WAS after 10pm on April 11, 1951 when Taoiseach John A Costello made the shock announcement that Health Minister Noel Browne had resigned and President Seán T O’Kelly had accepted the resignation on the recommendation of the Taoiseach.

It was a terse statement, but the country woke next day to what would be the biggest Church-state crisis of the century.

Browne had leaked the correspondence between the inter-party government and the Catholic hierarchy to the Irish Times. Its editor, Bertie Smyllie, had given an assurance that he would defy any effort by the Government to suppress publication of the material.

This correspondence, and ensuing statements by various members of the Government, gave the distinct impression that the Catholic hierarchy was in effective control of the state.

The whole controversy arose over Noel Browne’s ambitious plans to tackle the country’s appalling infant mortality rate, which was the highest in western Europe. He had already made a name for himself in tackling the country’s high incidence of tuberculosis, deaths from which had declined by 40% since the inter-party government came to power.

Part of the plan for the new Mother and Child Scheme was to provide free medical care for all expectant mothers and their children up to the age of 16. There was strong opposition from the Irish Medical Association, which characterised the plan as socialised medicine.

The Taoiseach quietly asked the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, for the attitude of the Catholic hierarchy. On October 10, 1950, James Staunton, the Bishop of Ferns, wrote to the Taoiseach on behalf of the bishops opposing the proposed bill.

“In their opinion the powers taken by the state in the proposed Mother and Child Health Service are in direct opposition to the rights of the family and of the individual and are liable to very great abuse,” Staunton wrote.

“If adopted in law they would constitute a readymade instrument for future totalitarian aggression,” he wrote. Their main objection was that the facilities were being provided free to everyone. This amounted to creeping socialism, which was akin to godless communism in the doctrinaire view of some of the bishops.

“It is not sound social policy to impose a state medical service on the whole community on the pretext of relieving the necessitous 10% from the so-called indignity of the means test,” Staunton warned.

“Education in regard to motherhood includes instructions in regard to sex relations, chastity and marriage,” Bishop Staunton continued.

“Gynaecological care may be, and in some countries is, interpreted to include provision for birth limitation and abortion,” the Bishop of Ferns went on. “Doctors trained in institutions in which we have no confidence may be appointed as medical officers under the proposed services, and may give gynaecological care not in accordance with Catholic principles,” he wrote.

The Minister for Health was essentially summoned to meet John Charles McQuaid, the archbishop of Dublin next day.

“I was peremptorily ordered to Archbishop McQuaid’s palace by a telephone call from his secretary,” Browne later wrote. “I could not understand why any bishop should not be prepared to meet a government minister in his department.”

Cabinet colleagues told him it was the practice for government ministers to meet the archbishop at his palace. When Browne requested permission to bring the secretary of the Health Department with him, the request was bluntly refused. But when he arrived at the archbishop’s palace, he found that Staunton and Bishop Michael Browne of Galway had joined McQuaid.

There is some confusion as to what transpired at the meeting. Noel Browne indicated that he believed he satisfied the bishops, but the Taoiseach got a very different impression when he met the archbishop the following day.

“The Minister for Health brushed aside all suggestions about the invalidity of the means test and the free-for-all scheme,” McQuaid told the Taoiseach. Browne did indicate he would consider issues relating to the education of mothers. “You have a point there,” he conceded, but he then “brushed the other matters aside and walked out”, according to the archbishop.

Possibly preoccupied with taking on the doctors of the IMA, Browne may have underestimated the hostility of the bishops in regard to the lack of a means test.

Education was already being provided free to children without a means test. Moreover, the new British National Health system was being implemented without a means test in Northern Ireland, where Catholic women were much more likely to be treated by a non-Catholic doctor.

Under the Mother and Child Scheme in the Republic, however, the bishops would not be able to ensure that doctors educated at Trinity would not be allowed to treat Catholics. At the time McQuaid had banned Catholics from entering Trinity College without the prior permission of the Church, under pain of effective excommunication.

Some years earlier Bishop Michael Browne of Galway had denounced the appointment of Robert Corbett, the Master of the Coombe, as professor of gynaecology at UCG, because Corbett had been educated at Trinity College.

Even though Corbett was a Catholic, he was unacceptable to Bishop Browne because of his education. In the face of this episcopal opposition Corbett resigned and migrated to Britain, where he went into private practice instead.

Although a Catholic, Noel Browne had attended Trinity College, and he went to Archbishop palace in Drumcondra on October 11, 1950, wearing a Trinity College scarf. Whether this was deliberate snub or not, it was inevitably going to interpreted as such by McQuaid and the Bishop of Galway.

One of the first acts of the inter-party government when it came to power in 1948 had been to send a telegram to the pope desiring “to repose at the feet of your holiness the assurance of our filial loyalty and our devotion to your august person”.

Maurice Moynihan, the cabinet secretary, strongly advised against the telegram on the grounds that “no civil power should declare that it reposed at the feet of the pope”, but he was overruled and promptly banned from all future cabinet meetings.

A range of legislation was promised on adoption, social welfare bill, and the Mother and Child Scheme, but all ran into ecclesiastical opposition. Justice Minister Seán MacEoin abandoned the adoption bill in 1950 as a result of opposition from the archbishop of Dublin. “He won’t allow it,” MacEoin told the cabinet. That was that, but there was no public explanation for the withdrawal of the legislation.

Tánaiste William Norton ran into similar opposition with the Social Welfare Bill, and it was parked for the lifetime of the government.

It was hardly surprising in the circumstances that Noel Browne received no cabinet support when he tried to defy the bishops.

Browne was a difficult person to get along with. The Taoiseach’s own account of his meeting with the archbishop supported Browne’s allegations of clerical control in a most powerful way, because he confirmed that he exhibited an extraordinary deference to McQuaid. In the figurative sense he was kissing the archbishop on all four cheeks.

“I asked His Grace would he permit me to try to adjust the matter with my colleague,” Costello told the Dáil. “His Grace readily gave me that assignment and that authority.”

The Taoiseach actually asked the archbishop of Dublin for permission to talk to his own Minster for Health. Costello was probably opposed to the legislation over the hostility of the doctors.

“Whatever about fighting the doctors,” he told Browne, “I am not going to fight the bishops and whatever about fighting the bishops, I am not going to fight the doctors and the bishops.” He notified Noel Browne in writing that he was withholding approval of the Mother and Child Scheme “due to the objections set forth in the letter to me from the secretary to the hierarchy”.

“You are not entitled to describe your scheme as Government policy and you must not so describe it hereafter unless and until you have satisfied the hierarchy,” Costello insisted in a letter to Browne on March 21. It was an extraordinary statement. He did not demand that Browne satisfy his cabinet colleagues, but, rather, that he had to satisfy the bishops.

“This matter was intended to be private and to be adjusted behind closed doors and was never intended to be the subject of public controversy,” the Taoiseach later told the Dáil. He seemed to be intimating that the people had no right to know what was happening.

ON APRIL 6, 1951, the hierarchy formally notified the Taoiseach that the Mother and Child Scheme was “opposed to Catholic social thinking”.

Browne went on Radio Eireann to defend the scheme, and the Taoiseach then called an emergency cabinet meeting.

“Slowly and solemnly Costello read out the archbishop’s letter to us all,” Browne recalled.

“He then looked at me and said, ‘This means the end of the Mother and Child Scheme.’ All the heads around the table began to nod, like those strange toy buddhas.”

Browne asked some of the individual ministers for their opinions. “Seán MacEoin was outraged that I had even dared to question him,” Browne noted.

“How dare you invite me to disobey my Church?” MacEoin blurted out angrily. “I don’t want to get a belt of a crozier.”

“One Judas was bad enough but 12 of them must be some kind of record, even in Ireland,” Browne remarked irreverently. It was bad enough that he was openly comparing all of his colleagues to Judas, but he seemed to be equating himself with Jesus. He essentially treated his cabinet colleagues with the same arrogance that the bishops had been showing towards them. At heart he was every bit as arrogant as the archbishop of Dublin, and therein lay part of the problem.

Seán MacBride called a meeting of the executive of the Clann na Poblachta party at which he pilloried Noel Browne for supposedly having communist sympathies.

He also accused him of being “politically foolish” by allowing himself “to be photographed in public shaking hands with a Protestant archbishop.” MacBride said that this “had done great damage to the party, and to the coalition government”.

While laying the ceremonial foundation stone for an infants’ unit at the Rotunda Hospital, Browne had been photographed with the chairman of the Rotunda Hospital board, who happened to be the Protestant archbishop Arthur W Barton. Browne retorted that submitting to the dictates of the Catholic hierarchy would undermine the cause of Irish unity, and he was determined to publicise the whole matter.

But it was Costello and MacBride who did most to highlight the craven attitude adopted by the government towards the hierarchy.

“I, as a Catholic, obey my Church authorities and will continue to do so, in spite of the Irish Times or anything else, in spite of the fact that they may take votes from me or my party, or anything else of that kind,” the Taoiseach told the Dáil.

“Those of us in this house who are Catholics, and all of us in the Government who are Catholics are, as such of course, bound to give obedience to the rulings of our Church and of our hierarchy,” MacBride added.

The media sided largely with Browne. “An honest far-sighted man has been driven out of active politics,” the Irish Times proclaimed in an editorial later that week. “The most serious revelation, however, is that the Roman Catholic Church would seem to be the effective government of this country.”

It was not Noel Browne but John A Costello and Seán MacBride who demonstrated that Home Rule had indeed figuratively become Rome Rule. The most vulnerable children of all were sacrificed in the Mother and Child controversy.

It has long been suggested that power corrupts, and in this instance the hierarchy enjoyed unprecedented power and influence in this country, which we now know — thanks to the various reports into clerical paedophile abuse — was also used to cover up sordid and depraved conduct against other vulnerable children.


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