Miriam Lord: Politicians unite on maternity hospital, but nuns not on the run

Eight years down the line and political ructions reigning ... with no end in sight to saga

The Minister for Health is off for more negotiations with St Vincent’s Hospital Group, still refusing to budge on selling him the land. File photograph: The Irish Times

The Minister for Health is off for more negotiations with St Vincent’s Hospital Group, still refusing to budge on selling him the land. File photograph: The Irish Times

 

Trust in Divine Providence is all well and good, but there is a lot to be said for a wholly owned subsidiary when arranging the disposal of your earthly assets.

The clever people who advise the Religious Sisters of Charity are well aware of that.

Giving everything away is an admirable option too, particularly if you decide to gift it all back to yourself in the end.

And then there’s another important aspect to be considered: does charity begin at home, or in Rome?

Questions over ownership and governance of the new National Maternity Hospital kept coming on Wednesday. But over a period of three hours when no other issue was debated, the Dáil got few satisfactory answers.

The Minister for Health was in for a Social Democrats motion calling on the State to buy the proposed site from the St Vincent’s Hospital Group (SVHG) and he was followed by the Taoiseach and Leaders’ Questions, where the issue dominated again.

One conclusion emerged: the future of this project is mired in confusion.

That’s eight years after it was launched by then minister for health James Reilly, three more ministers later and four years after a major controversy erupted over the location, ownership, management and control of the hospital. Concerns faded somewhat when the Sisters of Charity announced they are getting out of hospital business in Elm Park and moving their shares into a new independent charity called St Vincent’s Holding Group, which also owns the maternity hospital.

They described this as a gift to the people of Ireland. But they still own the land, which they have agreed to lease to the state. As for the independent holding company, its core values mirror the ethical code of the nuns.

Troubling questions remain over what influence it might have on medical policy. The suspicion expressed by Opposition speakers was that while they may have walked off the pitch they purposely left their guiding Catholic ethos behind them.

Hands off now but with feet still firmly under the operating table.

Speaker after speaker raised grave reservations over the plan to relocate the creaking Holles Street set-up to the St Vincent’s campus. It was striking that the Taoiseach did not disagree with them.

And what was truly depressing was his reluctance to discuss the overall cost of the project. Estimated costs have similarly ballooned, said Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, with fears that the final bill could top1a billion euro.

Bandying such big figures about isn’t “helpful” argued Micheál Martin. “Not until we see tenders, and so on . . . ”

So here we are. Eight years down the line and political ructions reigning. The Minister for Health is off for more negotiations with St Vincent’s Hospital Group, still refusing to budge on selling him the land. And to cap it all, a bombshell from the former master of Holles Street on teatime radio when he says the Government is thinking of abandoning Elm Park and moving the whole kit and caboodle to the Tallaght Hospital campus.

How does he know this? Peter Boylan lets slip that former health minister Simon Harris said it to him the other day when they just happened to bump into each other. The pair of them were thick as thieves during the Repeal the Eighth campaign. They are also skilled communicators.

And after all this comes the dawning horror that we aren’t even at the tendering stage yet.

Roísín Shortall of the Social Democrats laid out all the misgivings in a speech full of unsettling detail. The nuns’ proposal to transfer its interest into St Vincent’s holdings required Vatican approval and is subject to Canon Law which requires them to ensure they avoid harm to the church in the transfer.

“The Government may deny Catholic values will persist at the new hospital, but that is what the corporate structure is designed to facilitate, namely, the continuation of the ethical code of the Religious Sisters of Charity Ireland,” she said. “When the Government was negotiating this deal, it is now clear that the parties were mismatched. It was a David and Goliath situation, and the sisters were not diminutive. It is not the first time they have run rings around the Irish Government.”

Because the sisters have form. Back in the 1970s, said Shortall, they built St Vincent’s in Elm Park with public money and got the State to agree not to interfere in the running of it. In the meantime, if they sold their old hospital in St Stephen’s Green, the proceeds would be handed over.

“Predictably, that never happened.”

They sold it all the same.

Her colleague, Jennifer Whitmore, wasn’t convinced by the SVHG’s promise there will be no religious or Vatican influence in the new hospital. “It will be an absolute miracle if that is the case because nowhere in the world is healthcare that goes against the ethos of the Catholic Church provided if the lands concerned are owned by the Catholic Church.”

Leading to a question asked by several TDs: “Why?”

Why, if there is to be no interference in the running of the maternity hospital and the new holding company is willing to lease out the land for at least a century, won’t the religious order not just sell and be done with it?

We will all be dead by then and, as the good sisters know all too well, there are no pockets in a shroud. Dublin 4 will probably be under the sea in 99 years, never mind 150.

Perhaps Gary Gannon of the Social Democrats was seeing the bigger picture by taking the longer view. He has no faith in the assurances that a Catholic ethos will not be encouraged. “A lease of 99 years is nothing to an organisation that has existed for thousands of years.”

Why? No deputies, including the Taoiseach, accepted the SVHG’s assertion that it has to own the land to ensure patient safety between the two facilities.

Seriously? “There is something more going on here. Is it an issue of ethos, control or money? We cannot allow this to happen,” insisted Catherine Murphy.

Why would the Government build, equip, staff and run a state-of-the art hospital and not retain the power to appoint a board of governors while allowing a private hospital own the site? “It beggars belief,” said Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane.

Neither could he work out why the religious order says it is giving the land to the people. “If it is genuine about that, why not go the full distance and simply gift the land to the State, as opposed to gifting it to a private charity?”

That made no sense to him. “It only makes sense if you want to have some level of control.”

Labour’s Alan Kelly went down the sympathetic route with Stephen Donnelly. “Minister, you’ve been handed a hospital pass.”

He told the Taoiseach what he told Donnelly: CPO the maternity hospital site. Dammit! CPO the whole campus, general hospital included. “I don’t believe you have any choice.”

The Taoiseach didn’t argue with anybody. His main interest was in “engaging with the stakeholders” and he reckoned the SVHG “will have to reflect on the consensus” view expressed in the Dáil. He sounded like he was keeping his powder dry.

“It’s time to take the gloves off with the Sisters of Charity,” said a bullish Mick Barry of People Before Profit/Solidarity. The average age of the nuns in Ireland now is probably heading south of 80, so that mightn’t go too well.

It is the independence and ethos of the company they have constructed in their stead which is worrying the politicians.

With the Opposition piling on pressure, the Coalition may be forced to act quickly on the ownership of the hospital. A protest march is planned for Saturday in Dublin.

This is a test for your government,” cautioned Joan Collins of People4Change. “This is not just about a new national maternity hospital. This is a moment in history” said Murphy.

“Seismic,” declared Kelly.

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