Irishman's Diary


It is worth repeating the letter to the Pope sent at Sean MacBride's behest by the new Inter-Party Government in 1948, recently revealed by John Bowman. "On the occasion of our assumption of office and of the first Cabinet meeting, my colleagues and myself desire 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 a social order based on Christian principles."

Yet in the perverse and perverted vocabulary of the Irish political lexicon, MacBride's earlier career as a terrorist qualifies him as a "republican" - pace Anthony Jordan in a letter to this newspaper last week. After 30 years of "republican" violence, it should be clear the word has dialect meanings within the Irish political vernacular which have no resonances anywhere else, and certainly not in the notion of respublica: a thing owned by the people.

Mother and Child

Had Sean MacBride not been a "republican" ex-terrorist chieftain, he would today be vilified by liberal Ireland for his treacherous conduct over the Mother and Child scheme. But he has a laissez-passer issued to the Bar of Good Opinion because of his paramilitary past. And Noel Browne, aided by his declarations of socialism and by a careful editing of the record (which included a deletion of his own obsequious prostration before John Charles, which John Bowman also recently revealed), remains the mythical hero of the entire affair.

Yet John Charles McQuaid, being a Catholic churchman, is the single villain of the piece. He denied what is now an article of faith for liberal Ireland: that the Mother and Child Scheme was A Good Thing.

But was it? It would effectively have put the medical welfare of every mother and every child under the age of 16 on the charge of the State, and without a means test. The IMO, no doubt fearing for its members' incomes, may well have harrumphed about Communism arriving by the back door; the Catholic Church may well have feared an attack on the family by the same route; but more to the point, the Mother and Child Scheme would have bankrupted the State by both the back door, the front door and whatever side entrances were available.

When the Catholic church defended the integrity of the family against State interference 50 years ago, it was not doing so out a reactionary gratuitousness, but because it knew then what we all know now: that State-dependency economically and socially devastates the recipient. It can be destructive even in a booming economy, as today in Ireland; but in the almost totally stagnant economy of post-war Ireland, it could have created a perfectly ruinous relationship between penniless State and pauper citizen.

Local publicans

For this was not an Ireland of the 1990s, in which child benefits go to the mothers. All State benefits would have been collected by the males of the household; and we may guess where much of the income so derived would have ended up. Among the primary beneficiaries of the Mother and Child scheme in the tenements of Gardiner Street and Dominick Street would have been local publicans; as indeed would have been the professional middle classes and the large farmers who were already outside the tax net, and whose families would now be medically maintained by the State.

Do you see what inevitably lies at the end of this primrose path? High taxes, higher emigration, economic dislocation followed by certain ruin; and that in turn would lead to draconian economic retrenchment and an abandonment of the Mother and Child scheme altogether. It was simply not possible for the economically backward Ireland of 1948, even as it plummeted down the world league tables of prosperity, to have paid out of its current account the medical bills for every mother and child in the country.

But that is not what John Charles had in mind, cries liberal Ireland. No doubt he did not deal with the macro-economics of the Mother and Child scheme. Why should he? But he did deal with the microeconomic effect on the family, his legitimate area of ethical interest. Thus he used the word "demoralisation" to describe the effect the measure would have on the family - not in its more modern, military, meaning of "low morale", but in its older meaning, of having one morals taken away.

Political culture

What more swiftly confiscates personal morality than the belief that the government will accept responsibility for what you have created? What incentive would there have been for personal self-discipline, in a political culture which already outlawed contraception and which favoured large families, if there were simultaneously a standing reassurance that no matter how many children one had, the State would mind them?

The truth is that nothing that the Catholic Church did then was opposed by politicians or a State which even for a while outlawed tampons, lest their use promote solitary indulgence. It is so easy today to blame the neuroses and social dysfunctionality of Ireland of the past on the Catholic Church or the bishops. But where did it and they come from? And who stood vocally against them?

Not Sean MacBride, not Noel Browne. And in the absence of any opposition, who may one properly blame?