Options to bring Mater into the NHS discussed


THE vexed issue of the Mater Infirmorum Hospital in Belfast, which opted out of the National Health Service on conscientious grounds in 1948 and was denied public finance, engaged the attention of the Stormont cabinet in 1965, according to confidential files just released in Belfast.

In February 1965, the Minister for Health and Social Services, Mr W.J. Morgan, circulated to the cabinet a draft letter to Bishop William Philbin, chairman of the Mater's board of trustees. The letter revealed discussions between the hospital's management board and Stormont officials on the hospital's possible entry into the state service. The minister proposed to amend the Health Services Act (1948) to make it possible for an exempted hospital to enter the state service and to add a clause safeguarding the "character and associations" of transferred hospitals.

The cabinet discussed the issue on February 24th, 1965. The attorney general, Mr E.W. Jones, said it would be better to make an offer to the Mater. "Special concessions must, of course, be within what is legal, and might in consequence be regarded as slight." The prime minister, Captain O'Neill said there were additional factors which might make a formal offer desirable, even if it should be rejected. In particular the whole "discrimination campaign" was being accelerated. The opposition leader, Mr McAteer, was bringing a deputation to see him and "the usual complaints would no doubt be made to the home secretary" during his impending visit.

The health minister said his draft proposals would place Northern Ireland on a par With Great Britain. The Mater could come into the State scheme on the same basis as other hospitals, or to enter a form of contractual arrangement. He never accepted that there had been discrimination against the Mater.

It was agreed that a party meeting should be held before the House of Commons debate. At this the minister of health should make it clear that he intended to legislate for the removal of the time bar and the introduction of the English "character and associations" provision. It was decided that the cabinet should discuss a letter to be sent to the Mater authorities, bearing in mind that it might be published.

The negotiations broke down, however, and it was not until - 1972 that the Mater entered the health service.