PRESIDENT Michael D. Higgins keeps a portrait at Áras an Uachtaráin a of a man who was a critic of former president Mary Robinson.
In his study, President Higgins has a portrait of Noel Browne as a young man,” Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has revealed in a speech at Trinity College.
Mr Browne was appointed Minister for Health in 1948, on his first day in the Dáil, and was famously forced to resign after a row with the Catholic church over ‘socialised’ medicine.
Mr Varadkar said: “As the 1990 presidential election approached, some of Mr Browne’s supporters, including Michael D. Higgins, worked to secure him the nomination of the Labour Party.”
Despite the backing of the Labour Women’s National Council, he was overwhelmingly defeated by Mary Robinson in the vote of the parliamentary party and administrative council. He never forgave her for it.
“Browne criticised her frequently during her term in office, for example, dismissing her candle in the window of the Áras to remember the diaspora as fatuous,” Mr Varadkar told Trinity staff and students in a keynote address.
Towards the end of his life, he claimed he was happy he had not run for the “impotent, titular post” and criticised Robinson for having “squandered… her undoubted talents” on the role’, Mr Varadkar said.
But he reveals that President Higgins has a portrait of Mr Browne in the Áras, despite the latter’s harsh view of Ms Robinson’s tenure. It is painted by the internationally-regarded artist Seán Keating, and the President “has called it his favourite possession”, according to the Tánaiste.
“As Taoiseach, I enjoyed regular visits to Áras an Uachtaráin for Article 28 conversations with the President,” the Fine Gael leader recalls.
“In his study, President Higgins has a portrait of Noel Browne as a young man.
“The young Michael D. saw the painting in Kenny’s bookshop in Galway and had to buy it, and he paid for it in instalments, starting with his first pay cheque. In it, Browne is wearing a bow tie and has gloves resting on his knees.
“Some people have interpreted this as Browne throwing down the gauntlet to the Catholic Church. President Higgins, however, sees the painting as more realistic. He knew Browne very well – Browne was his mentor as well as his friend.
He remembers that Mr Browne “drove a sports car” and that these were his driving gloves.
Mr Browne resigned over church resistance to his Mother and Baby Scheme in 1951. He died in 1997. “I have always admired his idealism, his passion, and his determination to stand up for the causes and the people he believed in,” Mr Varadkar says.
It was the Mother and Child Scheme that created the legend of Mr Browne standing up on his own against the world, the fearless opponent of clerical power, the Fine Gael leader says.
The scheme was to “provide a free medical service for women before, during and after childbirth, and for every child from birth up to the age of six”.
“He fell victim to various vested interests, including the powerful Irish Medical Association, which viewed it as the socialisation of medicine and a threat to their income and position. The Catholic hierarchy was also deeply opposed, seeing the legislation as ‘anti-family’ and wrote to the Taoiseach, John A. Costello.
“Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, in particular, viewed the proposal as an encroachment by the State into the life of the individual, and the first step to totalitarianism. Like the IMA, he also believed the scheme should be subjected to a means test.”
Faced with the strength of this opposition, Mr Browne found a lack of political back-up from Government colleagues.
“As the crisis came to a head in April 1951, McBride asked Browne for his resignation, and he was forced to tender it,” Mr Varadkar said.
Six years ago, in another speech, Mr Varadkar publicly called Mr Browne “a true idealist”, although he refused an offer to join Fine Gael when it was offered by Garret FitzGerald.