Miriam Lord: Strange case of the mayor and the maternity hospital

FF TD reveals a line of former Dublin lord mayors were also governors of Holles Street

Besides being former lord mayors of Dublin, what do former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, former Green Party leader John Gormley, Seán D Dublin Bay Rockall Loftus, Vincent Ballyfermot Jackson, Carmencita Hederman, Emer Costello, Seán Haughey, Hazel Chu and dozens more have in common?

It was another former lord mayor of Dublin, Fianna Fáil's Paul McAuliffe, who supplied the answer on Thursday evening as a Dáil debate on the proposed new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) was drawing to a close.

The answer is that all of the above have been governors of the Holles Street hospital. And Alison Gilliland, the current Lord Mayor, is now a member of the board.

McAuliffe dropped this mini-bombshell while addressing public concerns over the Government leasing the land on which the new hospital is to be built rather than owning it outright. Having read all the documents, he said, as a layman, he couldn’t find any mechanism which would allow the landlord or management of St Vincent’s Hospital Group (SVHG) to interfere in the running of the clinically independent maternity hospital.

'It used to be an honorary thing, but these days company law is, rightly, very strict'

And then, as he was on the subject of ownership and governance, he decided to come clean with Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.

“Now Minister, in all the times I have talked to you about this, I have never mentioned it, but you might be surprised to hear that I am a former governor of the National Maternity Hospital.”

What? Who knew?

“When I was elected lord mayor, I was made a governor,” Paul revealed, adding that it certainly came as a surprise to him at the time. Not only that, but when the chairman of Holles Street, aka the archbishop of Dublin, couldn’t attend, “I had the responsibility of chairing the meetings.”

While there is a lot of talk about the current hospital building being outdated, McAuliffe used his own experience to point out that the governance model is completely outdated too, but this hasn’t prevented all legally permissible services from being carried out in the NMH.

The archbishop of Dublin has never attended the board meetings and when the first notice and “meeting pack” arrived in the Mansion House for new incumbent Paul McAuliffe, he quickly wrote back and said he would not be attending any of them.

"When I was made Lord Mayor I think I was chair of about 20 different companies and I wrote to all of them and said 'Look, I think it's very bad governance nowadays for somebody to be put on your board that you didn't choose and then for them to be replaced every 12 months.' " McAuliffe thinks the Holles Street appointment dates back to the National Maternity Hospital Act in the 1930s, when Alfie Byrne was lord mayor for all but one year of that decade and was put on all sorts of boards.

“My view was that corporate governance is totally different to what it was years ago and I wasn’t comfortable being made legally responsible for a company that I really knew nothing about. It used to be an honorary thing, but these days company law is, rightly, very strict so now you have to register board membership and declare to Sipo and all the rest.”

A hen for the absentee landlord

William Herbert’s ears must have been burning this week because everyone was talking about him after Stephen Donnelly casually dropped his name on Wednesday morning in the middle of the health committee’s meeting on the NMH.

"The ownership of the land is not linked to the appointment of directors," the Minister for Health explained to members, giving the example of the current set-up. "The owner of the land under Holles Street is the Earl of Pembroke, whoever that is, and he has no influence."

That would be William Alexander Sidney Herbert, the stinking rich 18th Earl of Pembroke, who owns a 14,000-acre estate in Wiltshire and a magnificent stately home (used to film interior scenes in the Netflix hits Bridgerton and The Crown) along with the freehold of the National Maternity Hospital and many other properties around the Merrion Square area.

The rents paid by the State to British aristocratic landlords in this ridiculous throwback to our colonial past isn’t exactly onerous. Figures released back in 2011 for our ground rent obligations included €257.76 for Iveagh House, €220 for the Four Courts and €7.33 for Dublin Castle.

But still, every little counts.

In order to secure their Mansion House, the Corpo also agreed to provide a very expensive loaf of double refined sugar weighing six pounds at Christmas

The proposed €10-a-year long-lease rental agreement between the State and St Vincent’s Hospital looks cheap in comparison. However, the Government continues to come under pressure from the Opposition to convince St Vincent’s to either gift or sell the land to the State instead of the lease option. Sinn Féin is keeping the political drama going by bringing forward a motion next week on securing full public ownership of the site and building.

Acquiring freehold ownership of public buildings has always been complicated. Just over 300 years ago, in 1715, property developer Joshua Dawson sold his Dawson Street residence with freehold to Dublin Corporation for £3,500, in addition to an annual rent of 40 shillings.

In order to secure their Mansion House, the Corpo also agreed to provide a very expensive loaf of double refined sugar weighing six pounds at Christmas along with “two fat male hens”.

In return, Joshua Dawson agreed to build on an extra room which could be used for civic receptions, and which is still used for this purpose today.

Two fat male hens? Maybe the Government could send a pair over to the SVHG to seal the deal, if it’s still clinically appropriate.

But who?

Football-mad TD’s après Covid tours

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and comedian Gary Cooke’s Football Walking Tours of Dublin started up almost two years ago and ticked along quietly during the pandemic. From the beginning, their unique take on the history of football (not the done thing to say soccer) in the capital picked up great reviews from the thoughtful aficionados who signed up for trips.

Labour TD Ó Ríordáin may spend his working week talking away in Leinster House and his Saturdays pounding constituency pavements in Dublin Bay North, but on Sunday he likes to relax and unwind by pounding more streets in Dublin while talking for up to two hours at a time to total strangers.

Now that all restrictions have been lifted, the football-loving duo are ramping up their tour schedule and increasing the numbers allowed on each outing (25 max).

Ó Ríordáin and Cooke's original tour meandered around the northside of the city, beginning in the shadow of Croke Park in Ballybough, stopping at locations of note in Irish soccer history and usually ending up at Dalymount Park by way of Tolka Park and Bertie Ahern's Drumcondra. They talk history and politics along the way – but strictly of the sporting variety. The yarns are great.

There is a stop outside the Archbishop's Palace to remember the time John Charles McQuaid attempted to have a match against Yugoslavia banned

Cooke, of Après Match fame, is renowned for his impersonations of legends such as Johnny Giles and Liam Brady and some lad called Eamon Dunphy, and he peppers his contributions with bursts of shining insight from the great men.

They muse on the troubled history of the game and its perceived "Irishness" when viewed against the unsullied GAA. They probe the sometimes difficult relationship with official Ireland. There is a stop outside the Archbishop's Palace in Drumcondra to remember the time John Charles McQuaid attempted to have an international match against Yugoslavia banned.

And they wonder if the reason why Ireland played Poland so many times back in the 1970s and 1980s was really because certain high-ranking FAI officials were carrying on romantic liaisons with Polish women.

Now, out from under the shade of Covid, the two tour guides have been signed up internationally. Or at least, they have been lured across to the dark, sorry, south side.

“We are setting off next Sunday [May 22nd] from the Little Museum of Dublin on St Stephen’s Green and exploring the great football connections on the south side of the city. Did you know that 38 senior internationals came from Ringsend?” says Aodhán, who is rather nerdy about soccer and collects jerseys and programmes which he likes to produce during tours. “We hope to keep going most Sundays for the rest of the summer.”

Booking details are on the Little Museum of Dublin’s website. Meanwhile, the lads haven’t abandoned their northside gig entirely. Prospective punters can email FootballWalkingTour@gmail.com for information.

Harney holds her own

Former tánaiste and leader of the Progressive Democrats Mary Harney made a rare visit to Leinster House on Thursday when she appeared before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearing into financial governance issues at the University of Limerick in 2020. She was there as chancellor and chair of the college governing board.

In response to questions, she said it is an unpaid role and she does not claim expenses for it.

Sinn Féin's Matt Carthy asked "the esteemed" witness about the number of boards and committees on which she sits.

Mary, who retired from the Dáil and national politics in 2011, did a quick tot. “Well, I’m on the board of four private companies and I do other consulting as well.”

The meeting was robust in parts, with Harney and Independent TD Verona Murphy getting involved in a short spat over the chancellor's role as a public interest director with KPMG.

Harney held her ground, as she did throughout the session. The politicians were impressed. Labour’s Seán Sherlock, while not sharing her ideology, praised her for always being “honourable, honest and straightforward”.

The chairman, Sinn Féin's Brian Stanley, noted as he was wrapping up that it was the first time Mary Harney had been before a committee in his time. She earlier told TDs her last visit was for the banking inquiry in 2015.

“I noticed as people came in, I would say the majority of them weren’t here when I was a deputy and I’m not gone that long.”

“I wasn’t one,” said Stanley.

“I’m just telling you about the recycling of deputies, just to maybe warn you all,” she replied.

His colleague Matt Carthy chimed in gallantly, or maybe not: “Maybe we’ll all be as successful afterwards as you were.”

“I think, deputy Carthy, you’re very successful,” she told him.

“You’ve been through all the battles over the nineties and the noughties,” cooed Stanley.

“I sure have,” smiled the witness. “I thought I learned how to watch my back, but it’s a constant . . . I describe myself, chairman, as a recovering politician.”

“We’ll settle on that,” said Brian.

Afterwards, some long-serving Oireachtas officials discussed Mary Harney’s performance. “Usually a figurehead-type like a chancellor just reads the opening statement and lets the permanent staff answer the questions. But she controlled it all. It was a masterclass in how to handle a committee meeting. I’d forgotten how good she was,” said one.