Militant, January 1987, No. 148

Added to site, Feb. 8th 2005

Against the Tide

book review by Pat Smyth

The publication of Noel Browne's fine autobiography, Against the Tide, will make uncomfortable reading for many of our senior politicians. Their sickening complacency to the facts of poverty and cringing servility in the face of the Catholic Church have changed little since the days of Browne's ill-fated Mother and Child Scheme. For anyone who shares Browne's anger at the hypocrisy of Irish society it makes a very good read.

Noel Browne's life has been one of sharp and bitter contrasts. In his early years in rural Ireland he saw terrible suffering and poverty as member after member of his family were wiped out by scourge of the poor, tuberculosis. First his father, then he writes of the pain involved in this dying mother's sale of all her possessions to pay for one last desperate trip to London to leave her children with her sister Eileen. Within days their mother was in a comma and then she too died.

But Browne was almost incredibly fortunate. Though they were penniless he was admitted to a school run by a relation of his sister's generous employer. Later his luck was to be compounded by a chance meeting that was to lead to his virtual adoption by a rich Dublin family who paid for him to become a doctor.

Stark Contrast

The contrast between his two lives made its mark, a profound rage at the system and the beginnings of a socialist outlook. Impressed also by the beginnings of Labour's National Health Service in Britain he returned to Ireland to campaign for the elimination of TB and joined the new and, what he naively believed, radical Clann na Poblachta under Sean McBride.

At the age of 32, through a combination of circumstances, he was appointed Minister for Health in a Coalition Government. He knew what he wanted to do. The Department 'was transformed into a battle headquarters' and he embarked on a crash programme of building of TB sanatoria and the modernisation of the entire hospital service - 7,00 new beds in all. By 1951 the TB rate had fallen by 40%.

His outstanding work in health was substantially ignored by the Cabinet, however, until he proposed the Mother and Child Scheme. The Scheme would have allowed all nursing and pregnant mothers and all children up to the age of 16 full free access to the health service - even now such a measure would be a magnificent advance.

The doctors, the Church, the politicians of the conservative parties, of his own and Labour alike, combined to destroy the scheme and force Browne to resign. His descriptions of a champagne swilling Bishop of Galway, of McBride, his party leader who was secretly plotting to bring Ireland into NATO, and who told the Dail in all seriousness that Browne was mad, of the capitulation of one after another to Archbishop McQuaid and the latter's downright lies, are a devastating indictment of the Irish ruling class.

Labour's leaders were no better. Norton provided Fine Gael with the argument that a free health service would be a subsidy to the rich (a refrain echoed today by Barry Desmond). Not that Norton shunned the lifestyle of the rich: "Norton, the workers' leader, lived Larkin's 'Nothing is too good for the working class'. But for the Irish worker the good things in life stopped at Norton."

Above all Browne exposes the sickening hypocrisy of all these forces to protect the privileges of the rich doctors and the reactionary Church against the desperately needy poor. (McQuaid even blocked a proposal for nuns to visit the homes of children whose mothers were in hospital under the pretext that it would not be 'seemly' for them to be seen entering houses where the wife is known to be away.)

Yet, while this book is the story of a courageous fighter against the hypocrisy and poverty that were rife in the Republic, it is also the story of a man without a clearly worked out understanding of how society is changed.

Browne's fight is essentially a personal one driven by a deep sense of moral outrage. He feels that the logic of his position, the justice of this case, should somehow be sufficient to force change. When he finds, time and again, that this is not so he lapses into despair and resigns from whatever organisation he happens to be a member of.

Personal struggle

Writing of his experiences in the Labour Party in the early 1970s he says: "This was my last attempt to drag the reluctant Republic out of the 19th century." Yet as Marx explained, the task of transforming society is too great for any one person, no matter how genuine or courageous. The balance of forces is such that the "emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself."

Browne's great weakness is that of all liberals, no matter how radical, that he is an idealist who believes that reason will prevail and thus lacks the sense of urgency of building a mass movement that can bring about the changes he so desperately hopes for.

It is a criticism he himself makes of Noel Hartnett, the general secretary of Clann na Poblachta after his resignation from the party over Government corruption: "While I agreed with him about the principles involved…I felt that tactically he was mistaken in resigning…Reluctantly I must conclude that this was an essentially self-indulgent, petulant gesture on his part. It was ill-judged and serious in its consequences for those of us who remained on in that party."

Those who fought in the '70s to reclaim the Labour Party from the betrayal of Coalition have good cause to feel the same of Noel Browne's and his supporters who, although they did not resign, courted expulsion and then refused to fight it. Browne's failure even to refer in his book to the subsequent birth and rapid demise of the Socialist Labour Party may be a tacit admission of the mistake of not fighting on within the Labour Party.

Yet Against the Tide is nevertheless a powerful book by a man who has contributed more to the struggle for socialism in Ireland than any other of his generation. It remains for others who come after to build the movement that will not only stand against the tide but that can harness its huge power for the transformation of Irish society.

More Labour History pieces are available here

Another series of articles on Northern Ireland political developments
are available here.

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are available in our sitemap