Simon Harris to consider public ownership options for NMH

Minister to examine the possibility of a long-term lease for new maternity hospital

Minister for Health Simon Harris has said a public ownership element is being included in the legal agreement that will be reached by the NMH and by St Vincent’s. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Health Simon Harris has said a public ownership element is being included in the legal agreement that will be reached by the NMH and by St Vincent’s. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Minister for Health Simon Harris is to consider options for the partial public ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital.

Mr Harris indicated for the first time on Sunday that the State will seek a stake in the ownership of the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) after its transfer to St Vincent’s University Hospital campus, which is owned by a religious order.

As controversy and public disquiet over the Sisters of Charity retaining ownership of the facility continued, Mr Harris issued a statement on Sunday night pointing to a public ownership element being included in the legal agreement that will be reached by the NMH and by St Vincent’s later this summer.

He pointed to the agreement already brokered by mediator Kieran Mulvey and its reference to the State requiring a “lien” on the new facility.

“I believe there is potential to devise creative and acceptable solutions that will provide further reassurance regarding the ownership of these facilities which will be paid for by the State,” the Minister said.

Peppercorn rent

Mr Harris is expected to come back to Cabinet with his proposals later this month.

Among the options expected to be explored are a long-term lease (for up to 999 years) at a peppercorn rent, or a lease with a view to acquiring freehold in the future.

Another Fine Gael Minister, Charlie Flanagan, also suggested a long-term lease yesterday.

Mr Harris also disclosed that in the light of strong public sentiment he also intends to begin a “broader conversation” about religious congregations divesting their interest in hospitals and other health facilities over time.

Some 20 major voluntary hospitals and health facilities are owned by religious orders.

He emphasised that this would be a completely separate process from the debate on the NMH as he did not want any delays in its progress.

It is believed he wants the legal status of the hospital to be clarified by autumn, at which time An Bord Pleanála will make a decision on whether to grant planning.

Under current projections, construction work could begin early next year on the €300 million project, which will provide 240 individual rooms for patients.

‘Public concern’

Mr Harris said he needed “a short period of time” to work with Holles Street and St Vincent’s on an arrangement that could “address issues of public concern, which I have heard very clearly”.

Fianna Fáil TD Stephen Donnelly said he would like to see the investment of the State recognised in full State ownership of the land and hospital.

He said if that were not possible, he would call for “at a minimum a thousand-year lease.”

Mary Lou McDonald, deputy leader of Sinn Féin, said the Sisters of Charity had had “bad relationships with so many women and so many mothers and babies”.

She said that, understanding that, they should gift the site to the State. “If that does not happen the State should acquire it with whatever means, including compulsory purchase order,” she said.

Prof Declan Keane, clinical director of the National Maternity Hospital, said he is “in absolutely no doubt” the Sisters of Charity will have no role in the running of the new hospital.

‘Playing hardball’

Former senator and consultant oncologist at St Vincent’s Hospital Dr John Crown on Sunday said the hospital had no business “playing hardball” with the constitution of the board for the site.

He said the ownership issue troubled him.

He said that in St Vincent’s limits were applied in a subtle way.

“I don’t want people to think it’s some sort of Taliban-like theocracy. It’s not like that. On a day-to-day basis people would have no awareness of it.

“I had the first-hand experience of having clinical trials delayed – not by long, because I fought them on it – on an issue where [it was] specified that contraception was required for patients who would be exposing themselves to drugs which could be horrific to a developing foetus.

“You just needed for legal reasons to make sure that the person would not get pregnant,” he said.