No ‘plan B’ to maternity hospital at St Vincent’s, Harris admits

Minister says no other hospital in Dublin area could be used to deliver required services

There is no "plan B" if the proposed move of the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) to St Vincent's Hospital does not go ahead, Minister for Health Simon Harris has admitted.

Mr Harris said there was no other hospital in the geographical area that could be used to accommodate the NMH and deliver co-location with adult services.

Speaking to reporters in Galway, the Minister said he did not believe changes were needed to the agreement reached between the two hospitals last November about relocating the maternity hospital.

While he had not changed his mind about the agreement reached between two voluntary hospitals, this did not take away from his legal and contractual responsibility to protect the rights of the State and the taxpayer.


“Just because they have a robust agreement doesn’t negate my responsibility to ensure the clinical independence of the hospital is underpinned in contracts and our financial investment is protected.”

He said he would be happy to meet the board of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, which is due to meet next week after saying it want to “reflect” on the agreement.

The group is owned by the Sister of Charity, a Catholic religious order which has been widely criticised for failing to pay outstanding money owed under the redress scheme for institutional abuse.

Mr Harris declined to publish the agreement reached between the two hospitals but promised it would be made available before the investment goes ahead.

Asked to explain the “golden share” given to the Minister under the agreement, he said this would ensure the minister of the day would have an effective veto on any changes to the maternity hospital, which would require the unanimous support of its board and the consent of the minister.

He dismissed calls for the Government to compulsorily acquire the site for the hospital, saying this would mean the process continuing “for years and years”, depriving generations of women of modern maternity facilities.

“Why would I CPO and hand over money to a religious order when they are giving the site for free?”

Mr Harris was speaking in Galway where he was attending the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) annual conference.

In Dublin, around the same time, close to 200 people attended a demonstration outside the Holles Street hospital on Merrion Square, in protest at the planned transfer of ownership of the new hospital to the Sisters of Charity.

Lisa Carey of Parents for Choice, who organised the protest, said she felt it was “totally unacceptable” the congregation would be being given ownership.

Graham Linehan, co writer of the TV series Father Ted, spoke at the demonstration, saying: "Of course there will be interference in the maternity hospital run by nuns, it's ridiculous to think their won't be.

“For me it’s not funny anymore, it’s gone beyond that. I’ve stopped finding the Catholic Church’s involvement in human health a funny matter”.

People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith, who also spoke at the protest, said: “When you walk into StVincent’s hospital the first thing that greets you is a crucifix” Ms Smith said.

“It’s impossible to imagine how a religious order could not stop themselves intervening when pregnancy terminations, IVF fertility treatments, sex change operations are being offered in a hospital they have control over. They won’t be able to help themselves, they’ll be interfering left right and centre.”

Earlier, Mr Harris spoke about the St Vincent’s project at the IMO conference, saying only doctors and other healthcare professionals would make decisions about women’s health in the planned new national maturity hospital.

Mr Harris said he respected the right of St Vincent’s to “reflect” on the plan to move the NMH to its campus but it was “not good enough” to have women continuing to deliver at its outdated premises in Holles Street.

In his IMO speech, Mr Harris said this week’s controversy was a good example of how health service is a “complicated tapestry” involving public and private groups.

The new hospital is desperately needed, he said, after years in which there was no progress with the project to move Holles Street from its inadequate and out of date premises in Holles Street.

As Minister, his job now was to make the agreement between the NMH and St Vincent’s work for public health policy, the taxpayer and the State.

“This has been difficult for all stakeholders and I know St Vincent’s want time to reflect on this and indeed to reflect on some of the things I have said. I respect that.”

"But here's the thing. We need to build this new hospital. It is not good enough for women have to 'put up with' delivering their babies in Holles St, which the master, Dr Rhona Mahony, very clearly says is a hospital facility which is not fit for purpose."

Mr Harris said that while much commentary has been about “brick and mortar” it was about “so much more”.

“It’s about access to theatres, to intensive care facilities, to high dependency units, to consultants. It’s about two hospitals working together to meet the full spectrum of needs of women and infants. It’s about empowering doctors to make clinical decisions.

“It’s about making sure that no doctor finds themselves at three in the morning in the National Maternity Hospital with a woman needing emergency care and waiting and wondering how and when they will get to an acute adult hospital.”

Concerns raised about the project will have to be addressed, he said, by putting in place legal mechanisms to secure the State’s interest.

“In addition the clinical, operational and financial independence of the new hospital, as provided for in the agreement, will be copper-fastened in new legal arrangements, which I will put in place.”

“And lest there be any doubt - in this country, doctors and healthcare professionals make clinical decisions - nobody else.”

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is acting Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times