Departure of Kearns puts NMH relocation back in spotlight

Planned resignation of hospital board’s deputy chairman set to revive controversy

St Vincent’s hospital campus in south Dublin is the proposed location for the new National Maternity Hospital. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

As politicians return to their constituencies for the Dáil’s summer recess, it looked as though the controversy over the relocation of the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) was somewhat abating.

Many senior political figures were hoping that a lid would be kept on the ongoing behind-the-scenes negotiations while outstanding issues around the project are worked through.

The planned resignation of Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns as deputy chairman of the hospital’s board has put something of a kibosh on that.

While it is common to hear about rancorous meetings between politicians where there is disagreement, it is less common to hear about fractious exchanges between senior people in the medical world when it comes to such issues.


The exchange between Dr Peter Boylan and Mr Justice Kearns at the annual general meeting of the NMH nearly three weeks ago left some observers startled.

Sources said the former High Court president did not hold back in response to comments by Dr Boylan, who said that as far back as 2016 there had not been full consultation around the terms of the deal to move the hospital.

It is understood that Mr Justice Kearns, in no uncertain terms, railed against the claims, saying they were untrue, and even at one point accused Dr Boylan of “sitting on your hands” in that early period.

In one sense, the argument was about a historical turn of events which Dr Boylan had already written about in his recent book.

On the other hand, the exchange reveals just how deep divisions run over the planned move.

The opposing positions of both Mr Justice Kearns and Dr Boylan are well known when it comes to the relocation of the hospital, but the subsequent letter from Dr Frances Meagher shows that there is growing disquiet among other governors about the handling of tricky questions.

In her letter to Mr Justice Kearns, she said that during the meeting “there was an almost imperceptible pause between your enquiry of those present as to whether anyone had a question or comment and your then swiftly moving on to the next agenda item”.

“It was clear that neither question nor comment was welcome.”

She also wrote that “you did not appear at all interested in what those present were thinking”.

Sharp comments

Dr Meagher, who was formerly married to Dr Boylan and is a daughter of former NMH master Declan Meagher, also addressed the sharp comments between Mr Justice Kearns and Dr Boylan.

She said she was “shocked by the language used in your response to his remarks”, adding: “Irrespective of the content and tone of a question or statement, the duty of a chair is always to respond in a measured, professional manner. In no way did your reply meet these standards.”

Mr Justice Kearns has previously said that the relocation will be one of the State’s “most vital healthcare developments and will benefit Irish women for decades”.

“They will not be well-served by a perpetuation of unnecessary and unfounded negative public contributions regarding its viability,” he wrote in The Irish Times in 2017.

He also hit out at “inaccurate” statements about the project.

That was the same year that Dr Boylan resigned from the executive board of the NMH saying it was “blind to the consequences” of transferring ownership of the hospital to the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group.

Dr Boylan continues to raise concerns about the independence of the new hospital and of the potential for religious interference.

Mr Justice Kearns’s decision to stand down will no doubt come as a blow to those who are strongly arguing for the hospital to move to St Vincent’s. In a statement to The Irish Times, he said he decided to step aside late last year, while a spokesman said the board was told in May, predating the blow-up at the agm.

Sources said his decision was nothing to do with the agm or Dr Meagher’s letter.

Notwithstanding that, the move will place the issue of the relocation back in the spotlight and campaigners will also be watching closely to see who his successor is and what their stance is on the project.

That process is expected to be completed by the end of July.