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National Maternity Hospital: Government has 'problems' with project on land transferred from Sisters of Charity

The Tánaiste has said there are “problems, quite frankly, in going forward with this project”.

A meeting between Minister Simon Harris and hospital heads in 2017 with a model of the project
A meeting between Minister Simon Harris and hospital heads in 2017 with a model of the project
Image: Andres Poveda

THE GOVERNMENT IS concerned about “problems” with the development of the new national maternity hospital built on land transferred from a religious order.

The proposed national maternity hospital is earmarked for Elm Park in Dublin on land that has been owned by the Sisters of Charity – but the Tánaiste has said there are “problems, quite frankly, in going forward with this project”.

The Sisters of Charity said last year that it would “gift” the land worth €200 million to the State, with ownership being transferred from the order to a new body called St Vincent’s Holdings.

Services would be transferred from Holles Street to the new hospital and share a campus with St Vincent’s Hospital, where one building is still owned by the Sisters of Charity and is leased to St Vincent’s Healthcare Group.

The Minister of Health has previously iterated that the religious order will have no influence on the new national maternity hospital, but the Tánaiste says that there are other key problems with the project.

Speaking at Leaders’ Questions this afternoon, Leo Varadkar said that he thinks “we all respect and value the role played by the Sisters of Charity in providing healthcare and education down the years when the State did not and I think we all support the building of a new national maternity hospital at Elm Park”. 

“We need it and women need those modern facilities. But there are problems, quite frankly, in going forward with this project,” he said.

Leo Leaders Questions The Tánaiste at Leaders' Questions this afternoon Source: Oireachtas.ie

The hospital will be owned by the State and its constitution, memorandum and legal documents “guarantee” that services available in Holles Street will be provided in the new hospital, the Tánaiste said.

This includes procedures such as terminations, sterilisations, and IVF.

“But the government does have a big concern about two other aspects,” Varadkar said.

The first problem is the ownership of the land the hospital will be built on.

“That has not been gifted to the state, it has been gifted to a private charity, and it’s proposed that there be a 99-year lease to the state,” he said.

We have a difficulty with that, we don’t think the safeguards around that are strong enough that the land will be owned by a private charity rather than the State, and only a 99-year lease being provided.

The government also has problems with the governance of the hospital.

“It’s going to be voluntary. That’s okay. There are lots of voluntary hospitals and they work very well,” he said.

“However, the board will not be appointed by the government, and that’s areal difficulty too, because a hospital that is fully funded by the State or almost fully funded by the State should have a significant number or majority of members of the board appointed by the government, in my view, and that’s the problem that we face at the moment.”

Two things we’re happy enough about – owning the hospital, the guarantee that all procedures legal in the state will be provided in the hospital – but a difficulty around the ownership of the land it’s going to be on. not happy with the lease proposal, and not happy with the governance arrangements, and we are working through those things at the moment.

Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith raised the new national maternity hospital at Leaders’ Questions, saying she was concerned by a potential religious influence over the services that it would provide.

Smith is meeting Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly this afternoon to discuss the issue.

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Varadkar said that “from the point of view of the government, it is an absolute requirement that the Constitution for the new hospital must specify that any procedures and treatments that are legal in the state are available in that hospital. Full stop. There can be no ambiguity about that.”

He said the ideal scenario would be ownership of the site, but that the integration of the building with the existing hospital on the campus makes it “tricky”.

“But I agree that that would be the preferred option or certainly a better option than what’s being proposed now, which is 99-year lease with certain guarantees, but not adequate in the view of the government at the moment.”

Earlier this month, the Sisters of Charity asked the Minister for Health to facilitate the land transfer as a priority.

“Our legal documents to transfer the ownership of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group to the new independent charity are ready,” a spokesperson for the order said.

“We have done everything in our power to expedite the transfer to the new independent charity, St Vincent’s Holdings, and we call on the other parties involved, including the Minister for Health, to take all actions necessary to facilitate the completion of the transfer as soon as possible.”

Planning permission for the hospital was submitted in 2017.

The plans for the development include five operating theatres; 50 neonatal intensive care and special care single cot rooms; 24 delivery rooms; emergency and out-patient departments; ultrasound facilities; and single in-patient rooms.

A rally is being held outside the Dáil next Saturday by women’s rights activists who are calling on the government to ensure there is no religious influence over the new hospital.

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