David McCullagh is a journalist and author. A graduate of University College Dublin where he studied history and politics – McCullagh has a PhD in politics – he was RTÉ News Political Correspondent for 12 years before being appointed presenter of Prime Time in 2013. McCullagh has written two books – The Reluctant Taoiseach, a biography of John A. Costello (Gill and MacMillan, 2010) and A Makeshift Majority, a history of the first Inter-Party Government (IPA, 1998) and he recently returned to UCD to record a 6-part podcast series on the life and career of John A. Costello specially for History Hub.
Episode 5 – Mother and Child (Ep 5/6)
Transcript: Mother and Child (Ep 5/6)
The Mother and Child crisis of 1951 has it all: bullying Bishops; arrogant doctors; devious politicians; and a clean cut hero, wronged by them all.
That’s the received history, at any rate. The reality is a bit different.
Yes, the Bishops were bullies; yes, the doctors were arrogant; certainly, the politicians were devious; and the hero was of course wronged, though in the end Noel Browne was his own worst enemy – despite, as historian Joe Lee wrote, the competition from all the rest of them.
From today’s vantage point, it all seems a bit of a mystery – why would anyone oppose a plan to give free health care to mothers, and to their children up to the age of 16?
The plan had been drawn up in the Department of Health in the last years of the Fianna Fáil government – civil servant Dr James Deeney came up with the name “Mother and Child Scheme”, thinking that no-one could oppose that. How wrong he was.
For starters, the medical profession were against, for the very good reason that it would cost them money. A free scheme for all, with no means test, meant no more private patients. GPs would be paid a flat fee, and patients could visit them as often as they liked – a bit like current scheme for free medical cards for various age groups.
The doctors protested loudly, claiming they couldn’t cope with the extra demands the scheme would create, that it marked the start of “socialised medicine”, that the government was intruding into the rights of parents and of the family.
Crucially, this concern about State encroachment was sold to the Catholic Hierarchy, who took it on board, giving the doctors a vital ally in their self-interested opposition.
The Fianna Fáil government didn’t have to deal with this opposition though – a general election in 1948 saw them dumped from office by the first Inter-Party Government, made up of a wide range of parties, with a wide range of views on this particular issue.
The biggest party in the government, Fine Gael, had opposed the Mother and Child scheme when Fianna Fáil proposed it, even taking a legal challenge to it – with John A. Costello as one of the barristers involved. Now he was Taoiseach of a coalition, whose smaller parties – Labour and Clann na Poblachta – were enthusiastically in favour of the plan.
The new Minister for Health, Dr Noel Browne, was a member of Clann na Poblachta, and was anxious to push ahead with the Mother and Child Scheme; the Minister of Defence, Dr Tom O’Higgins, was a member of Fine Gael, and of the Irish Medical Association, which was bitterly opposed to it.
In the early stages of the government, Fine Gael felt it best to give Browne his head, to let him try to implement the scheme. He quickly ran into strenuous opposition from the doctors – and he managed to make their opposition more intense with his rather high-handed approach to negotiations.
It also emerged that the Catholic Hierarchy were opposed. Browne met the Archbishop of Dublin and two of his colleagues, and believed he had satisfied them; in fact, they were far from impressed. McQuaid brought his concerns to the Taoiseach, John A. Costello.
Costello was a devout Catholic; he had also been opposed to the Mother and Child Scheme from the start. He knew lots of doctors, and accepted their arguments against the proposal.
He told McQuaid that he would accept the Church’s view on the scheme, even if it meant the fall of the Government. He was worried that Browne would resign over the controversy, but had a plan – he would get Browne to submit the scheme to the Hierarchy for their decision. The implication was that if the Bishops ruled against the Mother and Child Scheme, Browne wouldn’t be able to resign on the issue.
It wasn’t a bad plan – assuming Browne would accept the Hierarchy’s decision.
Costello was right to worry about Browne resigning – the Minister had hinted he was planning to do so to his party leader, Sean MacBride, with whom he had fallen out. Browne’s strategy was to push ahead with the Mother and Child Scheme. If it was implemented, he won; if it was blocked and the Government collapsed on the issue, he would also win, restoring Clann na Poblachta’s radical credentials in the process.
On the 21st of March, 1951, frustrated at the continued delaying tactics of the doctors, Browne requested the Government press office to release a statement which, among other things, said the Mother and Child Scheme was government policy. Costello had publication stopped, insisting that Browne had to clear up the problem with the Catholic Hierarchy before anything else could be done. “Whatever about fighting the doctors,” he told his colleague, “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. It may come to a point where either you or I will leave the Cabinet on this, unless we can settle the matter with the Bishops.”
This came as an unpleasant surprise to the Minister, who thought he had already satisfied the Bishops. Another meeting with McQuaid cured him of that belief. Browne agreed that the Hierarchy should adjudicate on the scheme, asking the Archbishop to try to get an early decision from his fellow Bishops, as their decision might lead to him leaving the Cabinet.
Costello, meanwhile, was telling McQuaid that even if the Hierarchy approved the Scheme, he was determined not to implement it, because it was impossible to fight the doctors in their intense opposition.
Costello’s attitude to the bishops was almost comical in its deference. But this remark, that he wouldn’t go ahead with the Mother and Child Scheme – even if they approved it – does lend weight to the view that he was genuinely opposed to increased State control of medicine.
In any event, there was no danger of the Hierarchy approving the Scheme, which McQuaid informed Costello on the 5th of April, was “opposed to Catholic social teaching”.
Browne, who had taken the trouble to consult a sympathetic theologian, took this as a good sign, because the Bishops hadn’t condemned the scheme on moral grounds, where their decision would be binding on all Catholics, but only on the grounds of social teaching.
While this may have been a valid point on theological grounds, it made absolutely no impact on McQuaid, who asked Costello to tell his Cabinet colleagues that the Hierarchy’s letter “was a definite condemnation of the scheme on moral grounds. Catholic social teaching meant Catholic moral teaching in regard to things social.” McQuaid also pointed out the number of times the Bishops had used the phrase “this particular scheme” – in other words, an alternative could be acceptable.
The Cabinet duly met, McQuaid’s letter was read, and Browne found himself, not for the last time in his political career, in a minority of one. The scheme would have to be withdrawn, his colleagues decided, and a new one acceptable to the Bishops prepared.
Even still, Costello didn’t follow the logical course and sack Noel Browne. He still hoped he could keep his headstrong young Minister on board, come up with a new Mother and Child proposal, and win over the doctors and the Hierarchy.
But Sean MacBride, Browne’s party leader, had other ideas, and demanded his resignation. Browne not only complied, he also arranged for the publication of the correspondence with his colleagues and with the Hierarchy, an action which seemed shocking at the time – and which, incidentally, was welcomed by the Ulster Unionist Council, which reprinted the correspondence as a pamphlet to warn against the dangers of “Rome Rule”.
In the Dáil debate on his resignation, Browne said that as a Catholic, he accepted “unequivocally and unreservedly the views of the Hierarchy on this matter”, but, he said, he did not accept the way his former colleagues in Government had dealt with the matter.
Costello ruefully observed that Browne had had a day’s head start with his allegations, and no matter what he did, he would never catch up with him to the end of his public life. In this, if in nothing else, Costello was absolutely correct.
The popular legend holds that the Mother and Child Crisis caused the fall of the Government, but this isn’t quite true. Though weakened by the departure of Browne, the Government limped along, and might have made it to the summer recess if it hadn’t been for James Dillon, the Minister for Agriculture.
A colourful figure, considered a great orator by his admirers, and an insufferable windbag by his detractors, Dillon had done a lot for agriculture, but had also managed to alienate many people – including at least three Independent TDs whose support had already been lost by the Government.
At the end of April, a further two TDs resigned from one of the coalition parties, Clann na Talmhan, in protest at his refusal to increase milk prices. Facing certain defeat on the Agricultural Estimates, Costello called an election.
Despite all the shenanigans, Fianna Fáil only managed to win one extra seat, and most observers expected Costello to return to power. But Browne, along with a number of supporters, decided to vote for de Valera instead, at least in part in the hopes of getting the Mother and Child Scheme put into practice.
The Fianna Fáil government also had to face opposition from the Hierarchy, but de Valera and his Health Minister, Jim Ryan, eventually agreed a compromise which kept the Bishops happy. The agreed scheme only covered children up to the age of six weeks, rather than sixteen years, but Browne voted for it – although in later years he severely criticised it as a pale imitation of the original proposal.
But here’s the thing – despite the new scheme having the approval of the Hierarchy, Fine Gael opposed it, and was the only party to do so. Again, this fact supports the theory that it was medical rather than episcopal influence that motivated the party, and Costello, during the crisis with Dr Browne.
One other point should be noted – Tom Garvin has pointed out that “the Irish democratic process had been heavily tinged with theocracy, for the overwhelming reason that the majority wished it to be that way.” On this question, John A. Costello was most certainly with the majority in Irish society.