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Wednesday 4 October 2023 Dublin: 15°C
'There is a long history of intermingling of church and State funds with respect to St Vincent's'
Even in 1973 this was an intricate issue to untangle, writes solicitor Elizabeth Fitzgerald.

DELVING INTO THE history of St Vincent’s Hospital provides an interesting viewpoint from which to analyse current agreements relating to the transfer of the National Maternity Hospital to the Elm Park site.

Of particular interest are the terms of the original agreement to fund the construction of St Vincent’s Hospital and its amendment in the period 1965-1972. In 1954, the State agreed to provide £1.35 million to fund the construction of a new St. Vincent’s hospital.

According to its terms, if the hospital was not built or if, when built, its use as a hospital was discontinued, the Sisters of Charity were to repay the amount of the grant. If the hospital continued for more than 30 years after the payment of the final installment of the grant for its construction, the obligation to repay the State ceased.

A similar arrangement

This arrangement has parallels to the proposed lien over the new National Maternity Hospital at the Elm Park site.

According to Dáil records from 1972, Dr Noel Browne (then of Labour) referred to a further important condition in the 1954 agreement. The old St Vincent’s Hospital at St Stephen’s Green was to continue to be used as a public hospital. If the Sisters of Charity sold the St Stephen’s Green hospital, the proceeds of sale were to be transferred to the Hospital Trust Fund.

Despite the sale of the St Stephen’s Green hospital in 1972, the proceeds of sale were not transferred to the Hospital Trust Fund. This was due to a subsequent agreement between the order and the State.

Erskine Childers (Fianna Fáil), in response to a Dáil question from Dr Noel Browne in 1972, refers to a 1965 agreement between Donogh O’Malley (Fianna Fáil) and the Sisters of Charity to amend to the 1954 agreement. The 1965 agreement was not reflected in legal documentation until 13 December 1972, a perhaps unusual circumstance given the new hospital was by then in operation.

“Offering the site” for the new St Vincent’s Hospital

As described by Erskine Childers, the addendum meant that the State would provide 100 percent funding for the construction of the hospital and the congregation would be released from its obligation to pay the proceeds of a sale of the St Stephen’s Green premises to the State in exchange for the following: a transfer to the State of part of its Leeson Street properties (numbers 93-99 Leeson Street and 1-3 Leeson Lane) and the Sisters of Charity “offering the site” for the new St Vincent’s Hospital.

It is not clear what “offering the site” means in the context of the Dáil record, but it is likely to refer to a charge over part of or all the Elm Park property. The charge would only have effect where the Sisters of Charity did not complete the build or ceased to operate the new hospital.

The charge was to expire 30 years from the date of the payment of the last installment of the grant, which is likely to have occurred sometime around 2002. 100 percent funding of the hospital amounted to £4.2 million by 1971.

In the period 1970-1972 there are many Dáil questions from Dr Noel Browne querying why the Sisters of Charity were not paying the proceeds of sale of the St. Stephen’s Green premises to the Hospital Trust Fund in accordance with the terms of the 1954 agreement.
At one point in 1972, Dr Browne states:

surely, this is an extraordinary principle to permit, that an organisation – I do not care who they are, whether they are religious orders or others… should be allowed to sell off property, keep the money and then be given a 100 percent grant to build a new hospital?

He goes on to question the non-payment in circumstances where the Hospital Trust Fund was now £8 million in debt. “Why should special conditions be made in respect of this hospital and not in respect of many other hospitals which are in just as great need?”

Dr Browne’s frustration with the lack of information and the proposed new terms are obvious.

The St Stephen’s Green hospital was sold in two lots and the largest lot achieved a price of £1.3 million, about one-third of the cost of construction of the new hospital.

The solicitors for the congregation sought an order for the application of the purchase money for the purposes of the congregation including the building of a private nursing home on the Elm Park site. The Commissioners of Charitable Donations and Bequests referred the matter of the distribution of the proceeds of the sale to the courts.

An intricate issue to untangle

In the judgment delivered on 6th of April 1973, Mr Justice John Kenny held that the St Stephen’s Green property was the property of the congregation and that no charitable trust existed in favour of the “sick poor”. The Sisters of Charity were free to use the funds as they saw fit for any purpose, including a private nursing home.

There is a long history of intermingling of church and State funds with respect to St Vincent’s Hospital. Even in 1973 this was an intricate issue to untangle. Subsequent development on the Elm Park site, such as St Vincent’s Private Hospital, only add to the complexity.

Unravelling this knot is not going to get any easier with time. It must be dealt with now.

The people of Ireland will be dealing with the fallout of the proposed ownership structure for the National Maternity Hospital for the next century and beyond.

Elizabeth is a freelance technology and commercial law solicitor. Elizabeth has extensive experience of commercial and regulatory issues, particularly in the technology sector. @freelancelawie

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