Site ownership a recurring concern about National Maternity Hospital

Government uncomfortable building €800m hospital on land it does not own

Why are we talking about this again?

Blistering rows over the ownership and oversight of the new National Maternity Hospital have raged for the guts of a decade, but despite misgivings among many campaigners, it did seem the outline of a deal had been struck. However, the controversy erupted again last week when Tánaiste Leo Varadkar revealed concerns over some outstanding elements of the deal under which the State will lease the land for the site, and governance arrangements .

Who actually owns the land, and who will own the hospital?

At the moment, it’s owned by the Religious Sisters of Charity, who founded St Vincent’s Hospital. They stepped away and indicated they would transfer the land to a new entity, St Vincent’s Holdings, which would in turn lease it to the State. This has been described as a “gift to the people of Ireland” not, as People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith has pointed out, a gift to the State. Campaigners say the deal envisages St Vincent’s Holdings as the overall entity controlling the new maternity hospital and the existing St Vincent’s hospitals. The Government says the hospital buildings will be owned by the State.

Why does it matter who owns the land?

There are a range objections to the land ownership issue, which sometimes overlap. Peter Boylan, the former master of Holles Street, says the proposed ownership structure for the land may curtail the provision of services such as abortion. He has raised concerns about the permissions needed from the Vatican associated with the land transfer.

The Government is uncomfortable with building an €800 million hospital on land it doesn’t own. On Sunday, Varadkar also pointed out the land is mortgaged, arising from the financing deal underpinning the construction of St Vincent’s Private Hospital.

The Government has pledged that all procedures legal in the State will be carried out in the hospital, while the order has said it would have no role in the ethos or operation of the new hospital. Dr Rhona Mahony, another former master of Holles Street, said there would be no religious involvement. Clinicians working in the hospital are firmly of the view that there is an urgent need to relocate away from the cramped old facility on Merrion Square.

Has the State actually offered to buy the land?

This seems to depend on your perspective. On Thursday, politicians were told there had been multiple attempts to buy the land. Sources say it was broached several times over the years, and a 2017 letter from St Vincent's Healthcare Group (SVHG) supports this suggestion. But both the order and SVHG said they received no offers. This has prompted the Government to reassess whether a purchase might be possible. The final impact of this on the cost, if a sale were to be agreed, is unclear.

And is there a threat to the future of the project?

Varadkar intimated over the weekend that while he thinks the project will go ahead, there remains a risk it may be moved elsewhere.

The political pressure is unlikely to go anywhere, with a protest planned for Saturday, and a Social Democrat motion in the Dáil on Wednesday. If this row ends up with the project being cancelled or delayed, there will be plenty of blame to go around.