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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Noël Christopher Browne, Irish politician

Noël Christopher Browne, Irish politician who serves as Minister for Health from 1948 to 1951 and Leader of the National Progressive Democrats from 1958 to 1963, is born at Bath Street in Waterford, County Waterford, on December 20, 1915. He holds the distinction of being one of only seven TDs to be appointed to the cabinet on the start of their first term in the Dáil.

Browne grows up in the Bogside area of Derry. The Browne family also lives in Athlone and Ballinrobe for a period of time. His mother Mary Therese (née Cooney) is born in 1885 in Hollymount, County Mayo. His father Joseph Brown, an Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) sergeant, later works 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 becomes infected with tuberculosis. Both parents die of the disease during the 1920s. His father is the first to die, leaving only £100 behind to support a wife and seven children. Fearing that if she and the children remain in Ireland they will be forced into a workhouse, Mary sells all their possessions and takes the family to London. Within two days of their arrival, Mary is dead, later buried in a pauper’s grave. Of her seven children, six contract tuberculosis. Noël is only one of two Browne children to survive into adulthood after those bouts with TB.

In 1929, Browne is admitted free of charge to St. Anthony’s, a preparatory school in Eastbourne, England. He then wins a scholarship to Beaumont College, the Jesuit public school near Old Windsor, Berkshire, where he befriends Neville Chance, a wealthy boy from Dublin. Neville’s father, the eminent surgeon Arthur Chance, subsequently pays Browne’s way through medical school at Trinity College Dublin.

In 1940, while still a student, Browne suffers a serious relapse of tuberculosis. His treatment at a sanatorium in Midhurst, Sussex is paid for by the Chance family. He recovers, passes his medical exams in 1942, and starts his career as a medical intern at Dr. Steevens’ Hospital in Dublin, where he works under Bethel Solomons. He subsequently works in numerous sanatoria throughout Ireland and England, witnessing the ravages of the disease. He soon concludes that politics is the only way in which he can make an attack on the scourge of tuberculosis.

The poverty and tragedy that had shaped Browne’s childhood deeply affects him. He considers both his survival and his level of education a complete fluke, a stroke of random chance that saved him when he was seemingly destined to die unknown and in poverty like the rest of his family. He finds this completely distasteful and is moved to enter politics as a means to ensure no one else would suffer the same fate that had befallen his family.

Browne joins the new Irish republican party Clann na Poblachta and is elected to Dáil Éireann for the Dublin South-East constituency at the 1948 Irish general election. To the surprise of many, party leader, Seán MacBride, chooses him to be one of the party’s two ministers in the new government. He becomes one of the few TDs appointed a Minister on their first day in Dáil Éireann, when he is appointed Minister for Health.

A ‘White Paper’ on proposed healthcare reforms had been prepared by the previous government, and results in the 1947 Health Act. In February 1948, Browne becomes Minister for Health and starts the reforms advocated by the Paper and introduced by the Act.

The health reforms coincide with the development of a new vaccine and of new drugs (e.g., BCG and penicillin) that help to treat a previously untreatable group of medical conditions. Browne introduces mass free screening for tuberculosis sufferers and launches a huge construction program to build new hospitals and sanitoria, financed by the income and accumulated investments from the Department of Health-controlled Hospital Sweeps funds. This, along with the introduction of Streptomycin, helps dramatically reduce the incidence of tuberculosis in Ireland.

As Minister for Health Browne comes into conflict with the bishops of the Catholic Church and the medical profession over the Mother and Child Scheme. This plan, also introduced by the 1947 Health Act, provides for free state-funded healthcare for all mothers and children aged under 16, with no means test, a move which is regarded as radical at the time in Ireland, but not in the rest of Europe. Virtually all doctors in private practice oppose the scheme, because it would undermine the “fee for service” model on which their income depended.

The Church hierarchy, which controls many hospitals, vigorously opposes the expansion of “socialised medicine” in the Irish republic. They claim that the Mother and Child Scheme interferes with parental rights, and fear that the provision of non-religious medical advice to mothers will lead to birth control contrary to Catholic teaching. They greatly dislike Browne, seeing him as a “Trinity Catholic,” one who has defied the Church’s ruling that the faithful should not attend Trinity College Dublin, which had been founded by Protestants and for many years did not allow Catholics to study there.

Under pressure from bishops, the coalition government backs away from the Mother and Child Scheme and forces Browne’s resignation as Minister for Health. Following his departure from government, he embarrasses his opponents by arranging for The Irish Times to publish Taoiseach John A. Costello‘s and MacBride’s correspondence with the Catholic hierarchy, which details their capitulation to the bishops.

The controversy over the Mother and Child Scheme leads to the fall of the coalition government in which Browne had served as a Minister. But Church opposition to socialised medicine continues under the subsequent Fianna Fáil-led government. The hierarchy does not accept a no-means-test mother-and-infant scheme even when Fianna Fáil reduces the age limit from sixteen years to six weeks, and the government again backs down.

After his resignation as Minister for Health, Browne leaves Clann na Poblachta, but is re-elected to the Dáil as an Independent TD from Dublin South-East in the subsequent election.

Browne joins Fianna Fáil in 1953, but loses his Dáil seat at the 1954 Irish general election. He fails to be selected as a candidate for the 1957 Irish general election and he resigns from the party. He is re-elected at that election for Dublin South-East as an Independent TD.

In 1958, Browne founds the National Progressive Democrats with Jack McQuillan. He holds onto his seat at the 1961 Irish general election, but in 1963, he and McQuillan join the Labour Party, disbanding the National Progressive Democrats. However, he losess his seat at the 1965 Irish general election.

Browne is re-elected as a Labour Party TD at the 1969 Irish general election, again for Dublin South-East. He does not seek a nomination by the Labour Party for the 1973 Irish general election, but instead wins a seat in Seanad Éireann for Dublin University. He remains in the Seanad until the 1977 Irish general election, when he gains the Dublin Artane seat as an Independent Labour TD, having again failed to get the Party nomination.

In 1977 Browne is the first Irish parliamentarian to call for law reforms in regards to homosexuality, which is illegal at the time, and in 1979 is one of the few Irish politicians to attend the opening of the Hirschfeld Centre, Dublin’s first full-time LGBT community space.

Upon its formation, Browne joins the new Socialist Labour Party and is briefly its only TD, securing election for Dublin North-Central at the 1981 Irish general election. He retires from politics at the February 1982 Irish general election.

In 1990, a number of left-wing representatives within the Labour Party, led by Michael D. Higgins, approach Browne and suggest that he should be the party’s candidate in the presidential election due later that year. Though in failing health, Browne agrees. However, the offer horrifies party leader Dick Spring and his close associates for two reasons. Firstly, the leadership had secretly decided to run Mary Robinson, a barrister and former senator. Secondly, many around Spring are “appalled” at the idea of running Browne, believing he has “little or no respect for the party” and is “likely in any event to self-destruct as a candidate.” When Spring informs Browne by telephone that the party’s Administrative Council has chosen Robinson over him, Browne hangs up the telephone.

Browne spends the remaining seven years of his life constantly criticising Robinson who had gone on to win the election, thus becoming the seventh President of Ireland, and who is considered highly popular during her term. During the campaign he also indicates support for the rival Fine Gael candidate, Austin Currie.

After retiring from politics, Browne moves with his wife Phyllis to Baile na hAbhann, County Galway. He dies at the age of 81 in the Regional Hospital, Galway, on May 21, 1997. He is buried in a small graveyard near Baile na hAbhann.


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Loyalists Protest Sinn Féin Minister’s Refusal to Fly Union Flag

On Friday, August 4, 2000, Loyalists protest after Northern Ireland health minister Bairbre de Brún, a member of Sinn Féin, refuses to fly the Union flag outside her Belfast offices to mark the 100th birthday of Britain’s Queen Mother. First Minister David Trimble had written to the Northern Ireland secretary requesting that the Union Flag should be flown on all government buildings.

About 20 people take part in the picket organised by the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) as the minister leaves the Department of Health offices on Friday morning.

In Bangor, County Down, a group of loyalist protesters put up a Union Flag outside the offices of Sinn Féin education minister Martin McGuinness at his department’s Rathgael House headquarters. Another group of PUP protesters demonstrate at government buildings in Adelaide Street in Belfast city centre, where the Union Flag is flying above two of the government buildings in the street.

Protestors hold up posters showing the faces of de Brun and McGuinness printed on a Union Flag. The posters also show the face of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) agriculture minister Bríd Rodgers.

The PUP’s Billy Hutchinson criticises Sinn Féin ministers over their refusal to fly the Union Flag. “These people cannot even recognise that we have a monarch who’s 100 years old and they can’t even fly the flag, just because they think that everything that is British is no good,” he says. “These people forget that they have lived in Britain all their lives, most of them. They weren’t even born at Partition (of Ireland).” He adds that Sinn Féin’s ministers should accept that they are “British ministers in a British state.”

However, Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey condemns the protests as “intimidating and sectarian.” He says Sinn Féin’s position on the flying of flags is designed not to cause offence. “Where British cultural and political symbols are invoked in public life, equivalent Irish cultural and political symbols should be given equal prominence. Where this cannot be agreed, no such symbols should fly,” he says.

The issue of flags has been emotive and divisive in Northern Ireland. The Sinn Féin ministers anger unionists on May 2 by ordering their civil servants not to fly the flag as part of the Coronation Day celebrations. The row reaches a head when the anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) attempts to guarantee the flying of the Union Flag with an assembly motion in June. However, the party fails to win enough support for their motion to be passed.

There are about 13 days in the year when the Union Flag is flown on designated government offices in the United Kingdom. Government buildings across the UK – from Whitehall ministries to town council offices are expected to raise the Union Flag on these days.

It is the second time in a week that the health minister has run into controversy. On Wednesday, August 2, she is confronted by angry loyalist protesters during an official visit to a County Antrim hospital. Around 20 demonstrators picket the Lagan Valley Hospital in Lisburn, while she is on a visit to see a GP scheme as part of a programme to learn about aspects of the health service. The tyres on the minister’s car are let down and an egg is thrown. De Brun is forced to leave the complex by another door.

(From: “Trimble joins Union Flag row,” BBC News, news.bbc.co.uk, Friday, August 4, 2000 | Pictured: Protesters picket the Department of Health)


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Irish Nurse’s Organization Votes to Reactivate Industrial Action

Two hundred delegates of the 24,000-strong Irish Nurses Organisation (INO) nurse’s union vote unanimously on October 27, 1998 to reactivate industrial action if their claims are not met. The delegates gather at the Burlington Hotel in Dublin.

The more difficult task is to modify the pay demands made by the State’s 2,500 ward sisters. The INO executive calls for senior ward sisters to receive salaries of £31,000 a year, or £6,400 more than the current maximum. However, one of the INO branch amendments calls for a new maximum of £35,000, the same salary as directors of nursing in major hospitals.

The conference is called to report on progress to date in talks, spell out objectives and obtain a mandate for strike action if negotiations break down. There is little progress to report. Talks at the Labour Relations Commission the previous week failed to resolve claims on extra long-service increments for staff nurses, or better rates of pay for ward sisters. Both issues are now referred to the Labour Court, which is already dealing with allowances for extra professional qualifications held by nurses.

The Labour Court is due to hear submissions from the INO, other nursing unions and health service managers on the qualifications issue the following day. About half of the State’s staff nurses have such qualifications, worth £347 a year. The union wants them re-rated at 10% of basic salary, worth up to £2,200 a year for staff nurses at the top of the scale. Despite the negotiating gap, this issue is less difficult to resolve than the others, because it is less likely to lead to follow-on claims from other public service unions.

The union is looking for new long-service increments at the top of the current 15-year scale, which will add 18% to basic salary. As 80% of nurses never graduate to ward sister level, the INO argues that a nurse with 22 years’ service should be earning £25,000.

It is also seeking a minimum 10% pay differential between the maximum amount staff nurses can earn and the pay for the new Clinical Nurse Managers I, recommended by the Nursing Commission. The differential for Clinical Nurse Managers II should be 15% and that for Clinical Nurse Managers III should be 25%.

The union argues that any smaller differentials will make it unattractive for staff nurses to accept promotion and forgo the opportunity for unsocial hours premiums. Recent offers from the management on overtime pay could make promotion even less attractive.

A week earlier the nursing unions defer a nationwide overtime ban only after management agrees to introduce a national framework for overtime payments. Ominously, the concession comes after an overtime ban was introduced in Cork. For the first time nurses nationwide will be paid time-and-a-half, or double time for overtime.

But the unions also demand permanent part-time nursing posts be introduced, as a means of combating the increasing nursing shortage. That there is a shortage of staff nurses is the one issue unions, health service managers and the Department of Health are agreed on. It is severest in Dublin hospitals, where over 300 beds have closed.