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'All lawfully permitted procedures', including abortion, to be allowed in new NMH, minister says

The health minister and several medical professionals held a press conference this evening about the legal framework governing the new hospital.

LAST UPDATE | 3 May 2022

THE MINISTER FOR Health has sought to reassure the public that all lawfully permitted procedures, including abortion and tubal ligation, will be allowed at the new National Maternity Hospital when it is completed.

Minister Stephen Donnelly said this evening that there “have been multiple layers of legal governance protections and structures put in place to address a very reasonable question that people of Ireland have been asking”.

Cabinet delayed a final decision on the future of the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) earlier today amid ongoing controversy over the project.

Donnelly is set to go before the Oireachtas Health Committee to answer questions about the plans before the matter goes back to Cabinet in the coming weeks.

The minister and several medical professionals held a press conference this evening about the legal framework governing the hospital.

A statement distributed to media at the conference repeated the government’s assertion that the services available at the hospital will not be limited by any religious ethos.

It detailed that concerns about the term ‘clinically appropriate’ were based on a misunderstanding and that its use reflects the fact that the new NMH wouldn’t be expected to provide specialities found in Level 4 hospitals, like cardiology.

Speaking to reporters, Donnelly said that the “biggest concern that people are raising is they want reassurance – they want absolute reassurance that the new hospital will be fully independent”.

“There have been multiple layers of legal governance protections and structures put in place to address a very reasonable question that people of Ireland have been asking,” he said.

“There is absolutely no ambiguity whatsoever about the clinical and operation independence of the new National Maternity Hospital.

“That is an absolute guarantee of multiple layers of protection”.

Similarly, Professor Shane Higgins, Master of the National Maternity Hospital, said it will “continue to provide all the services that we currently provide”.

“We want our independence. It’s important for the national maternity hospital to have its own independence and that’s enshrined in this legal framework.”

The hospital is currently located at Holles Street in Dublin city centre, but is set to move to Elm Park, where it will be co-located with St Vincent’s Hospital.

Religious group the Sisters of Charity owned the land on which the NMH was to be built and this has led to years of debate about how the project should proceed. 

Following the increasing opposition to the plans, the Sisters of Charity announced an end to their involvement with the St. Vincent’s Hospital Group in 2017 and said they would therefore not be involved in the ownership or management of the new NMH

The transfer of their shareholding of the SVHG has been beset with delays, however, and it was only confirmed last week that this had been completed. 

SVHG said in a statement that the Sisters of Charity had completed the transfer of shares to a new private charity called St. Vincent’s Holdings CLG

A press statement this evening outlined that the legal framework “addresses both the ownership and governance of the new hospital, in order to ensure it provides lawfully permissible service as they are in the currnt NMH at Holles Street, and safeguard the State’s significant investment”.

The site would be leased from the SVHG for 299 years – “far in excess of the useful, functional life of the hospital and also double the previous proposed length of the lease”.

“The HSE will lease the site for this hospital from St Vincent’s and own the hospital itself. All procedures that are currently providing at the NMH under Irish law will be provided in the new NMH in Elm Park,” the statement said.

“This includes termination of pregnancy, provision of contraception services including tubal ligation, fertility services and gender reassignment procedures.

Clinical services will not be provided according to any religious ethos but according to best national and international clinical practice and within the terms of the HSE Service Level Agreement.

“Specifically, clinical practice will not be subject to any Catholic ethos. All lawfully permissible services that should be provided in a maternity hospital will be available here.”

The statement said there been “some comment around the use of the term ‘clinically appropriate’ in the legal agreement”.

“The concerns expressed are based on a misunderstanding. The agreement states that ‘all clinically appropriate and legally permissible’ services will be provided.

“It reflects the fact that the new NMH would not be expected to provide the range of specialties found in general Level 4 hospitals, such as cardiology or neurology, for example.”

Cabinet meeting

Cabinet today heard that that the finalised legal framework “provides strengthened assurance of protection of the State’s investment and provision of services”.

Donnelly told ministers that the framework would “copper-fasten the principle that any medical procedure which is in accordance with the laws of the land will be provided there.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin had said earlier that “we need to make a decision” on the future of the hospital as opposition politicians sought additional clarity.  

Opposition TDs had called on the government to delay giving the green light for the €1 billion project amid the ongoing dispute over its ownership and governance.  

Speaking on his way into Cabinet earlier today, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that various safeguards have been made to help reassure people about the independence of the hospital.

These included, he said, the 300-year lease being held by the State and the fact that the board would be made up of three representatives chosen by the minister, three nominated by St Vincent’s University Hospital and three nominated by the NMH

“You’re looking at three public interest members now on the board as opposed to one. There are various significant protections in there to make absolutely sure that that which is legally permissible in the State is provided to women and into the future in terms of services,” Martin said. 

And of course, there has to be full transparency. All of the documentation pertaining to this will be published, there will be engagement within the Health Committee of the Oireachtas as well. But I do think we need to collectively make a decision in terms of where we are today in modern society and healthcare for women, to make sure that we can put together and put in place a facility that meets the age and also needs to future requirements. 

Donnelly has repeatedly stressed that protections have been put in place to ensure clinical independence at the hospital.


Earlier today, opposition parties raised questions about the new St. Vincent’s Holdings CLG, saying that more questions needed to be answered before the plan could proceeded. 

“Questions about the conditions attached to the new St Vincent’s Holdings following the transfer of land from the Religious Sisters of Charity must also be addressed,” Labour leader Ivana Bacik TD said. 

Bacik said that TDs and Senators should examined the plans in the Oireachtas Health Committee before any final sign-off is given. 

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane TD also said that the Oireachtas should be allowed examine the plans. 

Social Democrats’ co-leader Róisín Shortall TD asked today was was known about the new private charity. 

Shortall said that several questions needed to be answered: 

What is known about the new company, St Vincent’s Holdings, to which the government is handing over control of a €1 billion publicly-funded hospital? What conditions did the Vatican attach to this company?
What was the role of Stembridge Ltd and Porema Ltd – companies associated with tens of thousands of offshore companies – in establishing SVH? Is there anything preventing part or all of the company assets of SVH being sold or transferred? 

Outside of political circles there has also been debate around the plans for the new NMH.

Former master Dr Peter Boylan has continuously raised objections about the ownership structure.

Additional reporting by Tadgh McNally and Lauren Boland

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