Fact that hospital was not in any Minister's constituency played a role

Wed, Nov 7, 2012, 00:00

Government was keen to avoid any accusations of pork-barrel politics, writes PAUL CULLEN

If the Government is as efficient at building the proposed new national children’s hospital as it was in managing the news that St James’s won, the building will go up in double-quick time.

Thanks to a series of carefully orchestrated media leaks in recent weeks, there was a sense of anticlimax to the formal announcement yesterday by Minister for Health James Reilly. The disclosure of snippets from the Dolphin review group report which reviewed the various bids had established St James’s in pole position in the public mind.

Only a Cabinet revolution would have usurped it from this position and this wasn’t going to happen given that both Taoiseach and Tánaiste had personally involved themselves in the decisionmaking process before the issue came to Cabinet. Leo Varadkar and Joan Burton, who would dearly have loved to see the project go to Connolly hospital in their constituency, could only keep mum.

St James’s had many factors going for it, not least its breadth of medical specialties, good public transport links and reputation as a well-run hospital. But one other factor not mentioned in any report is the fact that the constituency in which it is located does not have a Government Minister.

Normally, this would be a disadvantage, but in the current political climate and given Dr Reillys recent difficulty with primary care centres in his constituency, the last thing the Government could afford was another row over pork-barrel politics. With the original choice of the Mater by the previous government so famously described as a “northside job”, the current administration was keen to avoid similar accusations.

The fact that Dr Reilly has chosen to implement the option implicitly favoured by the Dolphin group will help provide political cover if things go wrong again. Yet it is strange that four years ago a report found that the Mater had the best mix of specialties, yet today the latest report says St James’s now performs better on this score. The earlier report was drawn up by international experts, while the medical expertise on the Dolphin group was Irish only.

The same group declared that tri-locating a children’s hospital with adult and maternity hospitals was “optimal” yet favoured the option which will not be able to deliver tri-location for many years to come.

For the Government, it helps that the report prefers St James’s over the Mater but in reality this choice was made on planning grounds. “Once bitten, twice shy” explains the Government’s early decision to rule out a second planning application on the Mater site.

That left the final choice to be made between the St James’s campus or a large site offered by the Coombe women’s hospital nearby. Up until yesterday there were clear signals that the new project would be located adjacent to the maternity facilities.

In the end, Dr Reilly opted to tell St James’s to use some of the land it had earmarked for a maternity site to provide a larger plot for the children’s hospital. The Coombe site may get research facilities at some point in the future, and less critical services in St James’s may be moved there.

Four years on, and not a sod has been turned on this important project. The hospital will not be finished for another six years at the earliest. While Reilly’s solution is less than perfect and is not free of risk, it represents the best shot we have of bringing this project to fruition.