Miriam Lord: Maternity hospital drama a turn-off for target audience

Ongoing saga of the new National Maternity Hospital has a rather convoluted plot

A remake of Call the Midwife, the BBC’s heartwarming drama about a group of midwives working in 1960s London, hasn’t been such a big hit over here.

Call the Solicitor just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Brought bang up to date for Irish consumption, this Dublin-based maternity drama isn’t doing it for a large section of its target audience.

Many women said they really, really wanted to like it because they had waited years for it to happen but, sadly, they remain unconvinced by the storyline.

Then again, the ongoing saga of the building of a new National Maternity Hospital sounds more suited to the stage, containing as it does some of the staple ingredients of classic Irish drama: religion, land, money, nuns, childbirth, politics, the law and strong women.


There’s even an unrelated sub-plot smouldering in the background. About turf.

Back at Leinster House, Leaders' Questions was dominated by concerns about the Government's plan to sign off on the deal to relocate the NMH to land previously owned by the nuns but now in the control of what Labour's Ivana Bacik called "the successor company to a religious organisation".

This group will lease the land next to St Vincent’s Hospital for a peppercorn rent of €10 a year for the next 299 years which, according to an exasperated Micheál Martin, amounts to “ownership by any other name”.

“But it isn’t,” chorused his questioners.

The plot has been “gifted” to the State, he insisted.

“But it hasn’t,” they cried.

“Private interest trumping public good,” declared Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, invoking the term “private landlord” for good measure. If the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group really wants to make a gift to the nation, let the business hand it straight over in a “clean transfer”.

Suspiciously complicated

McDonald and Bacik and Bríd Smith of Solidarity-People Before Profit agreed that the legal arrangement – which the Government intends to sign off on next week – appears suspiciously complicated.

“Byzantine” and “labyrinthine”, pronounced Bacik, who is a lawyer.

Micheál was most vexed by their response to what he contends is a great deal for the State and, more importantly, for the women of Ireland. The ageing NMH in Holles Street is falling apart at the seams and not fit for purpose.

“We gotta get moving!” he told them. This isn’t a time for playing politics.

Bríd was disgusted.

“First of all, Taoiseach, I’m going to appeal to you to just stop. Stop from that side of the House trying to make us look like we don’t give a damn about the maternity and reproductive care of women,” she fumed. This was not, as he wanted to frame it, playing politics or opposition for the sake of opposition.

Mary Lou was similarly annoyed, given the damaging influence of religiously motivated policy on women’s healthcare down through the decades. “When we raise these questions, we do that born of bitter, bitter experience and a determination that that will not happen again.”

It didn’t help that Micheál’s general reaction to these very concerned women was to tell them to approach the issue in a more balanced and calm way.

Armed with an abundance of legal advice, the backing of an overwhelming majority of medical experts working in Holles Street and all manner of assurances (and just a few leasing conditions) from a landlord determined not to sell while simultaneously giving the appearances of giving everything away, he is determined to get this deal over the line.

The way they were talking “you would honestly believe that the Government had some hidden, covert agenda”.


Oh, but there’s an agenda. Bacik is convinced of that. But it isn’t being driven by Micheál. She believes his bona fides are in not in question.

“There is clearly an agenda lying behind the decision not to gift the land to the State or not to sell it at a reduced rate. It is not an agenda of the Government, it’s not the agenda of the HSE. But there is an agenda and there is a rationale, presumably, behind the decision by the current owners of the land not to transfer it to the State,” she said. “And that is the question we are asking and we haven’t got a satisfactory answer.”

This is the problem and it is why the Government’s concerted efforts to put people’s concerns to rest are not proving wholly successful. No number of press briefings or Twitter marathons or committee appearances by the Minister for Health is going to sweep away those niggling doubts.

Meanwhile, senior counsels are surfacing with legal opinions all over the place and they aren’t all as comforting as the arguments set out by the Government.

After “100 years of attacks against women and their health” by religious-run institutions, women have a right to be suspicious. “There is a legacy and a history and a bad taste in our mouths,” said Smith.

The complicated legal architecture erected around a simple land transfer rings alarm bells, contended the Labour leader, and it only serves to fuel "doubts over a lingering religious ethos" at the new maternity hospital.

“If there is a willingness to transfer it on a 299-year lease, why not put the matter beyond doubt and provide it to the State in perpetuity?” she asked. “If it is ownership in all but name, why not put the matter beyond reasonable doubt?”

Ulterior motive

The Taoiseach struggled to convince them that there isn’t some ulterior motive behind the structure of the deal. He urged the doubters to listen to the medics, who say all lawful procedures will be carried out at the urgently needed new hospital. “I’m pleading for people to at least read the documentation.”

He can’t make the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group sell them the land. “If people don’t want to cede ownership, they don’t want to cede ownership.”

Bríd Smith jumped in immediately. “Why?”

Perhaps even now, at this late date, the business running what used to be the nun’s business will reconsider. Get them around the table, urged Mary Lou McDonald, and convince them to sell the land to the State.

“And in one fell swoop all of the concerns will be resolved.”

The Taoiseach says his Government is determined to get this new hospital built and open. It’s been too long in the planning and it needs to get done. Listen to the doctors, he says. Listen to Fergus Finlay, former Labour advisor, who sits on the board of the HSE. Everything is in order. Disregard the misinformation, everything will be fine.

It's like all the talk about the deal needing Vatican approval. That never happened because it was never a requirement. But the nuns, in handing over to the new company, checked with the bossmen in Rome anyway and the lads gave their approval anyway.

Here’s a thought. What if the Vatican had said “No”?

Let us hope the Taoiseach, whose motives are in the right place and above doubt, is right.