Harris promises protections for National Maternity Hospital

Minister says measures against possible ‘religious interference’ to be put in place

Some 200 people gathered outside the Department of Health in protest at the Government’s plans to give ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital to the Sisters of Charity.


Minister for Health Simon Harris has promised key protections against possible “religious interference” will be put in place before the move of the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) to St Vincent’s hospital goes ahead.

Mr Harris rejected claims the Sisters of Charity, who will own the new facility through their ownership of St Vincent’s, have been “gifted” the hospital or that they would be running it.

While acknowledging “legitimate questions and opinions” had been voiced since it emerged the order would own the new €300 million hospital, Mr Harris said he was committed to “absolutely protecting” public health policy, taxpayers’ money and the State.

After a day when Opposition politicians mocked the Minister for “hiding behind tweets” on the issue and 200 people protested outside his department’s Hawkins House offices, he issued a statement saying he would seek new safeguards before the project went ahead.

“Let me very clear: there will be no financial gain to any religious order from the development of this hospital.

“Legal arrangements will be put in place which will 100 per cent protect the State’s investment and interest in the new hospital.”

The building can be used only for the defined purpose of providing public maternity, gynaecological and neonatal services, he said.

“Robust contractual arrangements must be put in place to make sure that this is a reality.”

However, former NMH master Dr Peter Boylan called on the Minister to ensure ownership does not pass to the Sisters of Charity and changes are made to the structure of the board that will run the new hospital.

Religious objections

Writing in The Irish Times today, Dr Boylan said the board structure currently proposed meant the four members from St Vincent’s would have “fundamental religious objections” to clinical work such as abortion, IVF and gender re-assignment surgery being carried out.

“This structure will inevitably create conflict and is not a recipe for a harmonious working relationship at board level.

“Are we seriously expected to believe that if the hospital goes ahead according to the proposed arrangement it will be the only maternity hospital in the world owned by the Catholic Church, and run by a company owned by the Catholic Church, that will allow these procedures? This stretches credibility to breaking point. Indeed it would seem to be naive.”

However, current NMH master Dr Rhona Mahony insisted the nuns would not be running the hospital after it moved to St Vincent’s and it would be “completely independent”.

The executive board of the NMH voted overwhelmingly for the agreement with St Vincent’s shortly before it was announced last November.

Dr Boylan and one other abstained, one member voted against and the rest of the 30-strong board who were in attendance voted in favour.

The wider board of governors who own the maternity hospital will have to vote for the move before it can go ahead.

They were briefed on the agreement last January, and are likely to vote on the move after An Bord Pleanála decides on the planning application and the project gets an official go-ahead.

The board of governors has 85 members, some of whom have been in place for 60 years.

The controversy has thrown the focus on ownership structures in health, which remain substantially in religious hands despite massive State investment.

In recent years, for example, the Department of Health spent €266 million on improvements to the Mater hospital, which is owned by the Sisters of Mercy.

Responding to Opposition calls for the agreement brokered by mediator Kieran Mulvey to be published, Mr Harris said he wanted the Oireachtas health committee to have the opportunity to discuss the document, and it was unlikely it would be published before then.