Thursday, November 18, 2010

Autumn photos

11th Nov, hazel hedge still in leaf
Long shadows, 21st October
And on 11th November

The Beech tree on 21st October

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The IMF is not the workers friend

Talks to 'intensify' over Irish debt crisis is the latest headline on the RTÉ website, timestamped a few minutes ago.

In recent weeks, I've heard callers to talk radio shows including RTÉ’s popular Liveline say “welcome to the IMF,  they can't be worse than the lot we have.”  Anyone who thinks the IMF or the European Central Bank are the workers’ friend is sadly mistaken. They are the bankers friend. They are bankers.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Mother and Child crisis of 1951

Archbishop John Charles McQuaid
of Dublin denounced Noel Browne’s
Mother and Child Scheme

This essay on the Mother and Child Scheme is a follow-up to my piece on secularism.

In the late 19th century, unionists bent on frustrating the home rule project coined the slogan Home Rule is Rome Rule. The Mother and Child Scheme affair of 1951, which I am going to describe, is commonly cited as the clearest evidence that Ireland up to the 1950’s did indeed have Rome rule.

At the 1948 general election de Valera was ousted and replaced by a multi-party coalition under Taoiseach John A Costello. This was the government that formally proclaimed the Republic in 1949. One of the new government’s first acts was 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, as well as our firm resolve to be guided in all our work by the teaching of Christ and to strive for the attainment of social order in Ireland based on Christian principles."

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 future cabinet meetings.

In 1951 Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin issued a diktat to the government over the Mother and Child Scheme proposed by Dr Noel Browne, the minister for health, who was also a doctor. The cabinet meekly submitted. Noel Browne protested and resigned.

Beveridge Report

For background we need to go back to the Beveridge Report published by the UK government in 1942. This was the report that recommended social insurance and a universal health service, which was subsequently enacted by the post-war Labour government under Atlee. According to one Irish historian, the Beveridge Report was “perhaps the most significant influence on Irish public opinion after the war."

Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme would have provided free health care to all mothers, and children up to the age of sixteen. A limited national health service in effect. Browne’s department had been doing a magnificent job in building hospitals and tackling what had been the highest rate of tuberculosis in western Europe. By 1951, after just 3 years, the TB rate had been halved and he turned his attention to the country’s infant mortality rate, also one of the highest in Europe.

The 1948 Cabinet. Noel Browne seated at left.
John A Costello seated centre. (Irish Times)
Opposition from Catholic church

His Mother and Child scheme was to give effect to a law not yet implemented, passed under the previous Fianna Fáil government. It ran into opposition from the Catholic church because the bishops thought it amounted to socialised medicine, as there was no means test for free treatment, and moreover that the scheme provided for counselling of pregnant women without stipulating that only a Catholic doctor could advise a pregnant Catholic woman.

The bishops objected to the state taking upon itself "education in respect of motherhood". Browne sought to reassure them that this related to matters such as diet, and not issues like contraception or abortion, which were illegal anyway. This didn’t stop the church issuing black propaganda claiming that contraception and abortion were included in the scheme along with euthanasia for the aged and sterilisation for the unfit.

The Dominican order issued a question and answer sheet which portrayed Browne’s heath scheme as communist and immoral. I can hardly believe what I'm writing here but it’s on page 208 of Noel Browne’s autobiography. He says two of the questions and answers were:-

Q: Is it a mortal sin to introduce a mother and child health service?
A: It is a sin to introduce a mother and child no-means-test service.

Q: Is it true that the Communist Party believes in free health services?
A: It is true that the Communist Party has a free health service.

So the Tea Party isn't new. Actually I'm jumping ahead a few months because that was in the 1951 general election when Browne, who had had to resign as health minister, stood as an independent and doubled his first-preference votes.

Returning to the sequence of events, the doctors too opposed the scheme (just as in Britain they opposed the NHS) their motivation being that it would curtail their incomes, by increasing their ‘dispensary’ patients and reducing their private ones.

This reactionary attack by the church and medical establishment frightened Browne’s conservative fellow ministers who quickly disavowed him and his scheme.

All four cheeks

In a notorious incident that has become part of the folklore of this story, Taoiseach John A Costello allowed himself to be summoned by Archbishop McQuaid to his Drumcondra palace to be informed of the difficulties between the bishops and minister for health. Costello actually asked the archbishop for permission to speak to Browne. "I asked his Grace to 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 prime minister asking permission from a cleric to speak to one of his own ministers! Who was running the country? One wit said, and many wits have since repeated, that Costello not only kissed the archbishop’s ring but also kissed him on all four cheeks.

Costello notified Browne in writing that he was withholding approval of the scheme "due to the objections set forth in the letter to me from the secretary to the Hierarchy." He ordered that Browne should not describe the scheme as government policy "unless and until you have satisfied the Hierarchy."

Another frequently cited incident from the affair is this.  Browne was “peremptorily ordered” to a meeting with Archbishop McQuaid at his palace by a telephone call from his secretary. Browne thought the meeting ought to be held in the health ministry, as for any other citizen. “Yet my Cabinet colleagues informed me that in fact it was the practice, under Irish government protocol, for a minster to be expected to attend, when told to do so, at a bishop’s palace”.

Browne resigns

Yielding to pressure from the bishops, the Cabinet dropped the scheme. Browne, accused of deliberately provoking a confrontation with the church, was forced to resign. No political party, not the Labour Party, not his own Clann na Poblachta (radical republican party) supported him.

Browne gave his correspondence with the archbishop to the Irish Times, provoking a political crisis. Shortly afterwards the government fell.

McQuaid is said to have viewed his victory as the most important event in Irish history since Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Hospitals and schools - in fact most aspects of Irish life in the early 1950s - were dominated by Catholic thinking and influence, and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid presided happily over it all.

“I obey my church”

So what was going on? At a cabinet meeting where the archbishop’s letter denouncing the scheme was read out, Browne asked each minister in turn if they assented to the church's ruling that the scheme be dropped. One Labour Party minister muttered "They shouldn't be allowed to do this" but nonetheless nodded assent.  Another minister blustered angrily “How dare you invite me to disobey my church!”

Costello remained unapologetic about his ceding of authority on such a matter to the hierarchy. He told the Dáil "I, as a Catholic, obey my church authorities and will continue to do so."

In a radio interview he said : “I think the power of the church at the present time is as powerful as ever it was because it exists not through any authority that is exercised by priests or bishops, or by hierarchy, or anybody else, but because the church exists in the hearts of the Irish people; and the priests as the representatives of the church have still the strong place in affection and regard that they always had. It’s absurd to be talking about a priest-ridden people, we are a priest-ridden people because we are a Catholic religious people and for no other reason.” 

What of Browne's religion? He considered himself a good Catholic.  He consulted a theologian who advised him (on condition of lifetime anonymity) that his scheme didn’t contradict the church’s moral teaching, only its social teaching. Browne’s empty hope was that he could use this argument to persuade the cabinet that it would not be a sin to adopt the scheme.  

I'll reflect on what all this has to say about secularism later. Annotated copy of this essay available on request.  I should also add that I intend to follow up an article in an historical journal which places an entirely different interpretation on the mother and child affair.

Divergent views 

It's only fair to add that the significance of this affair is still debated by historians. In a television programme (Taoiseach, TV3, 16/1/11) historian Maurice Manning said the Mother and Child Scheme was not such a big issue at the time. Fine Gael (Costello’s party) had opposed it when Fianna Fáil introduced the idea in the previous Dáil. 

Another historian on the programme said it was a cabinet of prima donnas.  Browne was certainly one of those who were the target of this remark. Browne didn’t communicate well with his colleagues in the cabinet. Because of the diverse make-up of the Inter-Party Government, much more responsibility than is customary was delegated to ministers.

It's also argued that the hierarchy didn’t really understand the issues, and Costello used their objections to get rid of Browne whom he was tired of anyway;  and that the Mother and Child Scheme didn’t bring the government down as is sometimes suggested.  It was milk prices sometime later.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"Laying it on with a trowel"

Quiz : who originated the expression to lay something on with a trowel? Was it 
A - Shakespeare
B - Dickens
C - Orwell?
Answer : Shakespeare. 

In Act 1 scene ii of As You Like It, Celia says “Well said: that was laid on with a trowel.”  But did Shakespeare invent it?  I suppose it may already have been an expression in common use.