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What’s going on with the ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital and why are people unhappy?

The long-running controversy is back in the headlines this week.

A demonstrator at a protest against Catholic Church involvement in the new National Maternity Hospital outside Leinster House in March.
A demonstrator at a protest against Catholic Church involvement in the new National Maternity Hospital outside Leinster House in March.
Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

YEARS OF CONTROVERSY surrounding the relocation of the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) may be finally coming to a head as Cabinet considers plans to move the facility to the grounds of St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin.

The Elm Park campus on Dublin’s southside was selected as the location for the hospital back in 2016.

The facility would be the largest maternity hospital in the State, replacing the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street in Dublin city centre.

The selection of the Dublin 4 location has been highly contentious due to the site’s ownership by the Sisters of Charity religious order, which led to questions about whether Catholic ethos could influence medical practices at the publicly funded hospital.

The government and the Religious Sisters of Charity sought to clarify the matter by offering assurances guaranteeing clinical independence in the hospital.

This sought to pave the way for ministerial approval for the project, however opposition parties say the plans have not been properly scrutinised by the Oireachtas.

Activists say there should be no religious involvement in the facility and are urging people to contact their local TDs to express their dissatisfaction with the situation.

While earlier estimates priced the project at approximately €300 million, it’s now anticipated that it will cost between €800 million and €1 billion.

Site ownership

Despite widespread acceptance that a new National Maternity Hospital is needed, the ownership structure of the mooted facility on the grounds of St Vincent’s has faced significant criticism.

The Religious Sisters of Charity owns the land on which the hospital would be built and an original proposed deal would have seen the religious order owning the facility because it was set to provide the lands at no cost to the State. 

Efforts to ease concerns about potential religious influence at the hospital included the creation of a new company – St Vincent’s Holdings – to run the NMH which would have “clinical and operational independence”.

Last week the Religious Sisters of Charity announced that they would no longer be involved in healthcare and that they had transferred their shareholding in the company to a charitable trust.

Following that development the Cabinet now looks set to sign off on the proposals to develop the NMH at the St Vincent’s Hospital site.

It is understood Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly will to bring a memo to Cabinet seeking to green light the project shortly.

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

Opposition

Representatives of the NMH, including previous master Dr Rhona Mahony, have joined the health minister in insisting that the hospital will be “independently” run.

However, former master Dr Peter Boylan has continuously raised objections about the ownership structure.

Dr Boylan has again been vocal in his opposition in recent days and also wrote a letter to Taoiseach Michéal Martin yesterday.

In the letter, which was seen by The Journal, he outlined four areas of concern he has regarding how the Religious Sisters of Charity will transfer the ownership of the grounds to St Vincent’s Holdings, which would then lease the new maternity hospital to the State.

“As you will be aware, the Religious Sisters of Charity were obliged under Canon Law to seek the permission of the Holy See for the transfer of their shareholding to St Vincent’s Holdings,” Boylan writes.

As a Catholic religious order, they are governed by the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in Rome.

“In the absence of the full correspondence with Rome being made available for public and/or parliamentary scrutiny, it is clearly not possible for the Government to make any commitment or promise that Catholic ethos will not govern St Vincent’s Holdings and therefore the operation of the relocated National Maternity Hospital which will – as the plan currently stands – be owned and controlled by St Vincent’s Holdings.”

‘Shrouded in mystery’

There has also been widespread political opposition to the current plans.

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane said the plans cannot go ahead unless the State’s investment is fully safeguarded, and the rights of patients to access fertility and termination services are absolutely guaranteed.

“The Oireachtas – the Health Committee, the Dáil and the Seanad – must have an opportunity to scrutinise the proposals before any agreement is irreversibly made,” Cullinane said.

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“There must be absolute, cast-iron guarantees, in black and white, that all legally permissible services will be available to those who want them.”

Róisín Shortall of the Social Democrats said the government cannot sign off on the proposed deal while its terms are “still shrouded in mystery”.

Shortall outlined 10 questions that need to be answered before approval should be given.

The questions included: what is known about St Vincent’s Holdings, and what conditions did the Vatican attach to the company?

“Despite the length of time this controversy has swirled – nearly ten years – there has been little to no public scrutiny of the deal, the apparent terms of which have changed at various stages throughout this process. 

“The least that the Irish public deserve, is full transparency and accountability from this government about such a significant public investment in women’s healthcare,” Shortall said.

About the author:

Céimin Burke

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