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Master of NMH says he can't understand 'vitriol of opposition' to new maternity hospital

The Oireachtas Health Committee discussed the issue in a heated session last night.

Professor Shane Higgins, Master of the National Maternity Hospital.
Professor Shane Higgins, Master of the National Maternity Hospital.
Image: RollingNews.ie

Updated May 13th 2022, 1:00 PM

THE MASTER OF the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) Professor Shane Higgins has said he cannot understand the “vitriol of the opposition” to plans for the new hospital on the St Vincent’s Hospital campus.

Professor Higgins was speaking at a media briefing today about the plans to move the NMH from its current location at Holles Street to the new campus, which have been met with opposition from campaign groups and some politicians.

He said he wanted to stress again that he and all of the clinical staff at the hospital are confident that there will not be any influence from the Catholic Church on services provided at the new hospital. 

“We believe that the the legal framework protects the hospital, protects our ability, protects our independence – our operational and clinical independence, which is fundamental to the running of the voluntary hospital,” he said.

“We will have our own board, which will function completely independently of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, although it will have representatives from the group, but that’s not through any landlord licensee operation, it will be because we are on a campus and it’s an integrated service.”

The briefing this morning follows Higgins’ appearance yesterday evening at a session of the Oireachtas Health Committee, where he told members that the discussion around the phrase ‘clinically appropriate’ has led to a “misplaced fear” that it will allow the Vatican to stop certain procedures.

He said this wording serves as future-proofing, to ensure that the new maternity hospital cannot be converted into any other type of hospital in the future.

Former master of the NMH Dr Peter Boylan also appeared before the committee, outlining why he has concerns over the wording used in the framework.

“The phrase ‘clinically appropriate’ is a major red flag. Providing healthcare on the basis of this test removes autonomy from women and gives the sole decision-making capacity to doctors,” Boylan said.

“These words qualify access to services and enshrine justification for refusing legally permissible treatments.”

When asked today about Dr Boylan’s views, Professor Higgins said he, as the current Master of the NMH, speaks on behalf of the 1,200 staff currently working in the hospital, who support the plans.

“Dr Boylan was the Master here, I think he was the Master here 25 years ago, there have been three masters since then -  Declan Keane, Michael Robinson and Rhona Mahony – who are all 100% in favour of moving to St Vincent’s,” he said.

He said he was “not sure that he [Dr Boylan] has the understanding of the proposed move and the detail”. 

Professor Higgins said the campaign against the hospital’s relocation had changed direction once it became apparent that the Sisters of Charity had divested their interest.

“They’ve moved away from the nuns and now ‘clinically appropriate’ is the new hot topic, or the leasehold,” he said. “I think when you drill down, if you take them all separately and look at them from a purely objective point of view, none of them hold any water.

“The same individual has said that this hospital is fit for purpose and I challenge anyone in the room to say that the National Maternity Hospital is fit for purpose in terms of a 21st century maternity service.

“He’s disputed the definition of a nightingale award and I don’t want to get into the negative, I think the clinical imperative is clearly laid out and no one will dispute it. So I’m not going to speak for Dr Boylan, he was a very highly respected clinician for his entire career, but I don’t understand the vitriol of the opposition.”

The hospital has compiled a list of answers to the main questions members of the public may have about the plans, covering topics such as the ethos, ownership, the company directors and the clinical procedures that will be available at the hospital.

Professor Higgins said that while he had no issue with the inclusion of the term ‘clinically appropriate’ in the framework, he can now “see how much concern it has caused”. 

He said, having seen how much upset and concern it caused, the NMH would be open to either defining it or having it removed. 

“We don’t believe it’s going to impact on what we will or will not be able to do with the new development at Elm Park,” he said.

Cabinet decision next week 

Separately, Taoiseach Micheál Martin indicated today that Cabinet will press on and make a decision on the hospital on Tuesday. 

He suggested today that the phrase “legally permissible” is “very clear” that any procedure that is legal in Ireland has to be provided at the new maternity hospital.

“The guarantees are cast iron in respect of all legally permissible services being made available at the hospital. The constitution of the new hospital is very strong in terms of all services being made available,” Martin told reporters today in Kildare.

“‘Lawfully permissible’ is very clear – anything that’s legal in this country has to be provided at the new hospital, and is currently provided at Holles Street,” he said.

“The guarantees are cast iron in respect of all legally permissible services being made available at the hospital. The constitution of the new hospital is very strong in terms of all services being made available. Also, the operating licence of the HSE (provides further assurances).

“Above all, the clinicians in the hospital I listen to a lot. Many women involved in maternity, obstetrics and midwifery are unanimous that this hospital must go ahead in the interest of the health of the women in the country,” said the Taoiseach. 

Separately, Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media Catherine Martin, who is understood to have called on Cabinet for more time to review the deal, stated today:

“As agreed by government, a decision to approve the National Maternity Hospital’s move to St Vincent’s Hospital was delayed for two weeks in order to give more time for Ministers, medical experts and the public to reflect on the proposals and address genuine concerns.

“Minister Stephen Donnelly and other witnesses appeared before the Oireachtas Committee and gave clarity around concerns about “the clinical independence” of procedures at the new hospital.

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“During this necessary extended two week period of time, I sought answers and assurances in correspondence from my Cabinet colleague, the NMH, the HSE as well as St Vincent’s Healthcare Group.

List of procedures

“These centred on a non exhaustive list outlining what procedures will be available at the NMH, the use of the term “clinically appropriate” for services agreed by the parties involved, current and future funding for important services for women as well as safeguards that will protect the State’s significant investment in the new hospital,” she said.

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The minister was supplied with a letter from the St Vincent’s Hospital Group that a number of procedures, such as abortion, will be carried out at the new hospital. 

The minister said it was important that Donnelly and expert witnesses respond to, elaborate upon and answer in public session at the committee, the valid questions of concerns raised.

“I am satisfied that following assurances received (including written assurances I received containing required additional clarifications, including from the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group) that this has resulted in greater transparency around this project. I now believe that the safeguards and protections are there to protect services for women,” she concluded. 

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