On this day 70 years ago The Irish Times published its most famous editorial

‘The Roman Catholic Church would seem to be the effective Government of this country’

Seventy years ago today, on April 12th, 1951, The Irish Times published what is probably its most famous editorial. It was a response to the resignation of the minister for health, Dr Noel Browne, who had given the newspaper correspondence between the cabinet and the Catholic Church about the Mother and Child scheme, which Browne had hoped would offer education and healthcare to mothers and children up to the age of 16.

As Mark O'Brien writes on irishtimes.com today, the Catholic hierarchy objected to the State becoming involved in sex education and to the possibility of non-Catholic doctors treating Catholic mothers-to-be. He also points out that, in one of the letters that Browne leaked, which was published on the front page of The Irish Times, the church told Taoiseach John A Costello that Browne's scheme was "a ready-made instrument for future totalitarian aggression", declared that the "right to provide for the health of children belongs to parents, not to the state" and noted that "education in regard to motherhood includes instruction in regard to sex relations, chastity and marriage. The State has no competence to give instruction in such matters."

As a Scottish-born Protestant from a historically pro-union newspaper, The Irish Times's editor, RM Smyllie, understood the Costello government's folly

Costello’s interparty government dropped the scheme. Such obsequiousness to the hierarchy was at odds with its declaration, three years earlier, of a republic. As a Scottish-born Protestant from a historically pro-union newspaper, The Irish Times’s editor, RM Smyllie, understood the contradictory folly of the Costello government’s campaigning against partition while constructing a State that deferred to the Catholic Church.

The editorial mentions the Abolish the Border campaign and the Mansion House Committee. These refer to the All-Party Anti-Partition Conference, set up in January 1949 at the Mansion House in Dublin, to campaign internationally against partition. The initiative was supported by Fianna Fáil's leader, Éamon de Valera, who had often maintained that his party was the only one that could end partition. It raised a lot of money, but lobbying in the United States and at the Council of Europe, in Strasbourg, came to nothing.



The Irish Times Thursday, April 12, 1951 CONTRA MUNDUM A gallant fight has ended in defeat. Yesterday, after several days of tense struggle behind the scenes, Dr Noel Browne handed his resignation from the post of Minister for Health to the Taoiseach. Although he has been defeated, the honours of the conflict fall to him. We cannot but believe that his stature has been increased even in the eyes of his professional and ecclesiastical opponents. It is certain that the goodwill of the people at large follows him in his fall, and that tens of thousands of families will be sadder for it. His tragedy is that he failed to perceive the extent and power of the forces that were both openly and covertly arrayed against him. It was dangerous enough that his "Mother and Child" scheme aroused the fierce hostility of a considerable part of the medical profession; it was fatal when his views came into collision with the Roman Catholic hierarchy. With a united Cabinet on his side, he might have prevailed against the doctors, as his counterpart in Great Britain prevailed against them; but, as the correspondence which we print to-day too clearly indicates, he was left to fight a single-handed battle when once the Church entered the arena. Thus – not for the first or second time in Irish history – progress is thwarted.

A Mother and Child scheme, embodying a means test, is in accordance with Christian social principles; a Mother and Child scheme without a means test is opposed to them! So much, if we read them correctly, emerges from the documents which the Hierarchy contributes to the discussion. For ourselves, we cannot pretend to follow the reasoning, and we doubt if it will be followed by the puzzled and disappointed people of this country. Dr Browne proposed to abolish a means test because he is well aware of the humiliations that attend the existence of a means test in too many hospitals – the probings about income which cause annoyance even to the comparatively well-to-do, and acute distress to the poor. There are obvious reasons why the doctors – though certainly not all of them – should object to the absence of a means test, but the plain man, unversed in subtleties, will be at a loss to determine why the Church should take sides in the matter at all. This newspaper has not been uncritical of the ex-Minister’s proposals, and hold no brief for his particular scheme. Our sorrow is that he has not been permitted to fight it out on its own merits.

The history of the Mother and Child scheme reflects no credit on Mr Costello and his Cabinet. Until six months ago there was not a shred of evidence to suggest that the rest of the Ministers were not foursquare behind Dr Browne. Trouble only started, apparently, when the Hierarchy, having met at Maynooth in October, formulated its objections and communicated them to the Taoiseach. We hope that Mr Costello can deny the flat statement, included in the correspondence, that he first retained the Bishops' letter for a month before showing it to Dr Browne, and then forbore to transmit Dr Browne's reply. In the lack of such a denial, he will be hard put to maintain his political reputation. All the evidence implies that, from the time when the Church made its first tentative pronouncements – which were crystallised into a formal statement of policy only this month – the Government has been in a state of trepidation about the scheme, but has lacked courage to say so frankly. It has permitted the people to expect a Mother and Child service that would meet all their wishes, and only the resignation of Dr Browne has brought the true and sorry state of affairs into that light.

This is a sad day for Ireland. It is not so important that the Mother and Child scheme has been withdrawn, to be replaced by an alternative project embodying a means test. What matters more is that an honest, far-sighted and energetic man has been driven out of active politics. The most serious revelation, however, is that the Roman Catholic Church would seem to be the effective Government of this country. In the circumstances, may we appeal to Mr Costello and his colleagues to admit the futility of their pitiful efforts to “abolish the border” – their Mansion House Committees, their anti-partition speeches at international assemblies, their pathetic appeals to the majority in the Six Counties to recognise that its advantage lies in a united Ireland? To that majority, the domination of the State by the Church – any Church – is anathema, and from now onwards it can plead some justification for all its fears. It seems that the merits of a theocratic Twenty-six Counties outweigh those of a normally democratic Thirty-two. Has the Government made its choice? You can read this editorial in its original form here

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times