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Clann na Poblachta
In 1946 Sean MacBride founded a new political party - Clann na Poblachta. The party appealed to disillusioned young urban voters, and republicans who had lost hope of achieving anything through violence. Many had become alienated from Eamon de Valera's Fianna Fáil, the main republican party in Ireland but which in the view of extreme republicans had betrayed republicans during World War II by executing IRA prisoners, in part due to IRA connections with German Nazis. Clann na Poblachta party drew support from young people who were tired of the old nationalist policies and wanted more concern for social issues. In post-war Europe many people blamed the social evils of unemployment, poor housing, poverty and disease for the rise of fascism and communism. This new mood influenced people in Ireland also. Some people saw Clann na Poblachta as a replacement for Fianna Fáil. Others a replacement for the marginalised Sinn Féin, more a break from the traditional pro- and anti-treaty Irish Civil War division. The new party grew rapidly during 1947.
During 1947 Clann na Poblachta won several by-elections. The Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, saw the threat posed by the new party and in February 1948 he called a snap general election to try and catch Clann na Poblachta off guard. His tactic was successful; Clann na Poblachta only won ten seats - far fewer than was expected; some had hoped, others feared, that it would have displaced Fianna Fáil as the biggest party. Fianna Fáil still remained the largest party with sixty-eight seats. De Valera may have saved his party's dominance, but the election did produce enough seats among the opposition groups for them to be able to form a non-Fianna Fáil government, the first time in sixteen years. That First Inter-Party Government was made up of Fine Gael, Labour, National Labour, Clann na Talmhan, Clann na Poblachta and some independents. Former Cumann na nGaedhael Attorney-General John A. Costello, though not Fine Gael leader, became Fine Gael's choice for Taoiseach. Labour's William Norton became Tánaiste while Sean MacBride of Clann na Poblachta became Minister for External Affairs. Maverick socialist Noel Browne of the same party became Minister for Health.
As Minister foir External Affairs, and a strong republican, MacBride was seen as instrumental in the repeal of the External Relations Act, 1936, under which King George VI, proclaimed King of Ireland in December 1936, fulfilled the diplomatic functions of a head of state.1 In September 1948 Costello made the formal announcement in Canada that the government was about to declare Ireland a Republic. At Easter 1949 the Republic of Ireland came into existence, with the King's remaining functions granted instead to the President of Ireland.
The Government and opposition jointly mounted what it called the Anti-Partition Campaign, arguing that the opinion that partition was the only obstacle preventing a united Ireland. At foreign conferences, whether it was appropriate or not, Irish delegates stated their cause for the ending of partition. This campaign had no effect whatsoever on the unionist government in Northern Ireland.
As Minister for External Affairs, MacBride declined the offer of Ireland joining NATO to resist Soviet aggression. He refused because it would mean that the Republic recognised Northern Ireland. He did however state that Ireland was strongly opposed to Communism. In 1950 he offered a bi-lateral alliance to the United States but this was rejected. Ireland remained outside the military alliance. In 1949 Ireland joined the Organisation for European Economic Co-Operation (OEEC) and the Council of Europe as founder-members.
Clann na Poblachta TD and Health Minister Noel Browne, proved highly controversial. A medical doctor, he became famous for two policies. He spearheaded a successful anti-tuberculosis (TB) campaign. Free mass X-rays were introduced to identify TB sufferers. Sufferers were given free hospital treatment. New drugs were also introduced to fight the disease. Though Browne made a significant contribution to the campaign, it had actually originated with a Parliamentary Secretary (junior minister) in de Valera's government, Conor Ward ; it was Ward's preparatory work and Browne's practical implementation that produced the acclaimed scheme that practically wiped out TB in Ireland.
Browne's second initiative was much more controversial. In 1950 Browne tried to put the parts of the Fianna Fáil Health Act into effect. This Act would give free health care to all mothers and children up to the age of sixteen regardless of income. However, the Mother and Child Scheme, as it became known, faced stiff opposition from Irish doctors and the Catholic Bishops of Ireland. Doctors opposed the deal because they feared a reduction in their incomes and they were worried about state interference between patient and doctor. The Catholic Bishops opposed the Act because it seemed a dangerously communistic idea to them. They feared it might lead to the supply of birth control and abortion. Browne met with the Bishops and thought that he had satisfied them. However his handling of the affair alienated possible supporters in the hierarchy, notably Bishop William Philbin, and those elements of the medical profession privately supportive of the Mother and Child Scheme. In addition his poor attendance at cabinet meetings and strained relationships with cabinet colleagues meant that they too failed to support him.2 On 11 April 1951 MacBride as party leader demanded Browne's resignation and he withdrew from the Cabinet. Several other Clann na Poblachta TD's followed him out of the coalition.
In 1951 the coalition faced increasing pressure to remain afloat and so an election was called. Clann na Poblachta was reduced to just two seats. Noel Browne was elected but not as a Clann na Poblachta TD. He, and some other former Clann na Poblachta TD's, supported de Valera's minority government; he later joined Fianna Fáil. In 1954 another general election was called and the Second Inter-Party Government was elected, again under Costello as taoiseach, though with less parties. Though Clann na Poblachta TDs supported the coalition, they did not sit in cabinet.
During the 1950s the Irish economy remained stagnant. By the end of the 1950s MacBride lost his Dáil seat and Clann na Poblachta disintegrated. The party contested the 1961 general election but only one candidate was elected to Dáil Éireann. The party didn't contest the 1965 general election and ceased to exist.
1 In a bizarre quirk created by de Valera, Ireland had a king (in statute but not constitutional law) and a president. The question often arose as to which one if either was the actual Irish head of state. As the key definitionary role of a head of state is their diplomatic representation role (ie, signing treaties or having them signed in his or her name, accrediting ambassadors and having ambassadors accredited to them) and this role was explicitly denied to the President between 1937 and 1949, it is clear the president was not the head of state. Because that role was granted under the External Relations Act to the King the international community regarded King George VI as Irish head of state until 1949. John A. Costello in a speech to Seanad Éireann in effect confirmed that the King, not the President was head of state until April 1949. See President of Ireland.
2Browne's venomous attacks on his colleagues, though known privately were expressed publicly in his 1980s autobiography, Against the Tide. Even his supporters regarded the tone of his book as "unfortunate". He further damaged his reputation when, on being informed in 1990 that Labour had chosen Mary Robinson over him, he slammed the phone down and spent the remainder of his life (he died during her term of office) making personal attacks on Robinson, who had won the presidential election. On being expelled from Clann na Poblachta, he joined and was expelled from a number of parties, including Fianna Fáil and Labour, and even parties he himself set up.
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