Noël Christopher Browne (Nollaig de Brún; 20 December 1915 – 21 May 1997) was an Irish politician and doctor. He holds the distinction of being one of only five Teachtaí Dála (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 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 (expelled), Fianna Fáil (expelled), National Progressive Democrats (co-founder), Labour Party (expelled) and the Socialist Labour Party (co-founder).
Early life and career:
Noel 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 in Trinity College.
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 in 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.
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 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, which 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 state-funded healthcare, a move which was regarded as radical at the time. The ultimate result of this conflict on Browne was to remove him from mainstream politics, he resigned with effect on 11 April 1951 as Minister for Health. Browne was expelled from Clann na Poblachta and was elected to the Dáil as an Independent TD in the subsequent election. Browne had earlier also managed to snub 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. Browne did however indicate the influence of the Catholic Church in politics at the time.
Later political career:
In 1953 Browne joined Fianna Fáil but lost his Dáil seat in the 1954 general election. He was later expelled from Fianna Fáil. In 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 in the 1961 general election but in 1963 he and McQuillan joined the Labour Party, disbanding the National Progressive Democrats. However, Browne lost his seat in the 1965 general election. He was re-elected as a Labour Party TD in 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 setting up the Socialist Labour Party and becoming its only TD. Browne retired from politics in the February 1982 general election.
Offer of presidential candidacy:
In 1990 some left-wing member of the Labour Party approached Browne and suggested that he should be the party’s candidate in 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. 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 Noel 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.
Popular opinion took offence at a series of what were seen as crude and unfair caricatures given of his opponents. One in particular, a description of the eating habits and desire for cakes of obese cabinet colleague and bitter opponent William Norton, backfired when it was revealed that the man’s weight and desire for sweet foods was linked to his diabetes, a fact Browne as a medical doctor was well aware of but never mentioned in the book. (In the majority of cases, obesity and poor diet are a cause of diabetes rather than a consequence of it which might render this criticism somewhat unfair.) The families of his colleagues, all of whom except Séan MacBride were dead, publicly attacked Browne’s treatment of their relatives, as did the media.
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”.
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.