National Maternity Hospital ethos debate a ‘distraction’

Move to St Vincent’s site at risk as scrutiny of religious order persists, NMH master warns

Fears are growing within the NMH that the Government could withdraw its support from its move to St Vincent’s. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Fears are growing within the NMH that the Government could withdraw its support from its move to St Vincent’s. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


The head of the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) has warned its planned move to St Vincent’s hospital could be derailed by the “distraction” of continuing debate over ethos and clinical independence issues.

Prof Shane Higgins said it was “frustrating that the argument keeps changing all the time” despite assurances by the NMH, and St Vincent’s, that the new hospital would be independently governed, with its own board and master.

Fears are growing within the NMH that the Government could withdraw its support from the project, which has been the focus of intense controversy since 2017, when it emerged the site of the new building – though not the hospital itself – would be owned by the 100 per cent shareholders of St Vincent’s, the Religious Sisters of Charity.

The order has since withdrawn from involvement in St Vincent’s and has successfully applied to the Vatican to transfer its ownership of its lands, including the site for the new NMH, to a new holding company. However, critics claim the permission is subject to conditions that could see the continuation of a Catholic ethos.

The project “absolutely must” appear on the programme for government of the new administration, Prof Higgins said, adding that it would take 18 months to get contractors on site from a decision to go ahead.

St Vincent’s said no conditions relating to ethos or clinical practice have been imposed by the order in transferring their ownership of St Vincent’s hospital to the holding company.

The hospital says it is “in the final stages” of completing the legal agreements to enable the order to transfer its shares.

The memorandum and articles of association of the holding company will be completed “within weeks”, a source familiar with the process claimed.

Last month, the Religious Sisters of Charity announced they had received Vatican approval to transfer their 100 per cent shareholding in the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group to the new, not-for-profit holding company, St Vincent’s Holdings CLG (company limited by guarantee). The transfer of an estimated €220 million of assets removes one of the final obstacles to moving the NMH to the St Vincent’s campus.

In 2017, the proposed move was the focus of huge controversy when it emerged the nuns owned the site on which the maternity hospital would be built. The order subsequently said it was withdrawing from ownership at St Vincent’s but first had to get permission from the Vatican, which was granted last month.

Canon law

Dr Peter Boylan, a former NMH master, says the Vatican’s permission was granted on the basis that specific parts of canon law were “observed”.

“I can only conclude – with confident certainty – that St Vincent’s Holdings CLG is some kind of juridic person (public, private or ministerial) that will maintain Catholic ethos into the future. I am sure of it,” he told The Irish Times.

Denying the involvement of any type of “juridic person”, the Sisters of Charity stressed the assets were being given to a “non-religious company established under Irish law”.

Minister for Health Simon Harris welcomed the letter issued to the nuns but said it would have to be “legally and robustly scrutinised”.

“The matter will have to go through due diligence and proper scrutiny and return to government before it is decided to proceed.”

Preliminary construction on the project – of a car park and pharmacy – resumed on May 18th with the easing of Covid-19 restrictions.

The Sisters of Charity directed questions about the new entity to St Vincent’s but said they hoped the transfer of their shareholding could “now be concluded without undue delay”.