Miriam Lord: Suspicious minds told they just gotta have faith in maternity hospital

Government lines up clinicians and lawyers to allay fears of religious interference

“I just feel that we’re in the middle of something weird,” said a clearly perturbed Bríd Smith, asking the Government to hold off on making a final decision on relocating the National Maternity Hospital (NMH).

And she was right.

It did feel like we were in the middle of something weird when the Minister for Health and a supporting phalanx of clinicians and lawyers were grilled about the ownership, governance and independence of the new hospital at the Oireachtas health committee.

It was a strange encounter: the highly suspicious facing the highly convincing. One side armed with understandable misgivings and bitter experience and the other with clear answers and a compelling belief in the importance and urgency of their mission.


There was fear from both sides too.

Politicians worrying about the church stealing influence over women’s reproductive choices through clever contractual stealth. Medics anxious to allay those concerns while praying their hopes for a world-class maternity hospital will be realised.

Questions over the co-location deal which would see the new NMH sited next to St Vincent’s acute hospital in Elm Park led to the Cabinet postponing last week’s expected decision to sign off on the agreement to allow for the release of background documents and further discussion.

The health committee’s first of two meetings this week was particularly intriguing. It will have stirred up conflicting feelings for people with strong views on religious interference in women’s lives, and vivid memories of the Repeal the Eighth referendum on abortion.

Legal agreement

The legal agreement between the NMH and the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group (SVHC) is very convoluted. The SVHG, not the State, will own the land on which the new hospital is built.

The SVHG is just one step removed from the nuns who owned and ruled everything until recently. And they have companies within companies governed by separate company constitutions, with references to Mother Mary Aikenhead and talk in some quarters of links to the Vatican.

Any Irish woman (or man) with an awareness of the church’s unhealthy interest in controlling women’s lives down through the decades would have to be suspicious. But are we really in a situation, in this day and age, when the State and the women of Ireland risk being stitched up like kippers by the secular successors to the Sisters of Charity?

Stephen Donnelly arrived into Wednesday morning’s committee meeting wearing a human flak jacket of senior clinical and legal experts ready to absorb any query too dangerous or difficult for him to handle.

Three of these witnesses proved to be his secret weapon: Rhona Mahony, former master of Holles Street, Mary Brosnan, director of nursing and midwifery in Holles Street, and Prof Mary Higgins, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist in Holles Street.

These three women were leading lights in the Together for Yes campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. Their learned and compassionate contributions to the debate made a major difference to the outcome. And here they were, heroines to so many who supported repeal, urging committee members to support the relocation plan, marshalling all their arguments to convince them why it is so much the right thing to do.


When asked, not one had any worries about possible religious interference in the running of the new hospital. Nearly 70 per cent of voters trusted them during the referendum. In Leinster House, they were asking passionately for that trust again.

“I really, really dislike this assumption that there’s nuns out there who are somehow going to mind-influence me to stop me providing the care that is respectful for women and transgender men,” said the formidable Higgins.

“There is no way, absolutely no way that I would ever countenance moving women to an institution” with a religious influence, said Mahony.

“We do appreciate that people are worried and concerned and want to ask questions. We hope that with this debate everyone else in the country will be satisfied as well. We totally support this,” said Brosnan.

Donnelly was at pains to recognise this concern. “I believe that this ultimately comes down to a deep-seated mistrust of institutional Ireland based on an appalling track record when it comes to the church and women’s reproductive health,” he told the committee.

This sense of worry and mistrust was articulated brilliantly by Smith, who sought to move away from the old cliche of “nuns in long veils traipsing the corridors” laying down the moral law.

“When we talk about a religious interference, we mean a deep-seated, deep-rooted prejudice and inbuilt thinking about women’s health that goes into the heart of the civil service, into the heart of the health service, into the heart of the political establishment. And it’s something you can’t see. It doesn’t wear a veil but it does traipse around our bodies and our lives all the time.”

Meanwhile, upstairs in the Dáil chamber, there was just one question on the maternity hospital issue, in contrast to the previous day when it dominated.

For the second day in a row, Mary Lou McDonald urged the Taoiseach to convince the St Vincent’s Group to give, not lease, the land to the State.


Micheál Martin repeated this is very unlikely to happen for reasons to do with the management of the entire campus – the hospitals and other facilities will be interlinked, sharing access and facilities. He said the new hospital needs to be built after years of prevarication.

“I don’t see a big mystery. I don’t see a big conspiracy there. Genuinely, I don’t,” he told the Sinn Féin leader, who replied she never said there was.

“What’s the issue so if there isn’t a conspiracy? We have to, at some stage, take people at good faith in relation to this,” Martin said.

Back at the committee, HSE legal representatives were backing up the Taoiseach’s claims that a 299 -year long-term leasehold agreement “is effective ownership”.

One of them explained that it’s like somebody buying an apartment – it isn’t built on their land but nobody disputes that they don’t own the property.

The doctors stressed that all procedures carried out in Holles Street such as terminations and tubal ligation will be done in the new hospital.

Prof Higgins explained that the use of the term “clinically appropriate” in the legal agreement was to “futureproof” medical procedures. “I don’t know what things we are doing at the moment which will not be acceptable in 20 years’ time.”

The testimony given by the witnesses in favour of the St Vincent’s move was impressive. They answered the questions put to them during the four-hour session with openness and clarity. Their explanations behind the tortuous legal frameworks sounded convincing.

Above all, the passion shown by the three senior Holles Street women during the repeal campaign came through again in their appearance before the committee. They really want this to happen.

Ten members of the board of the HSE agree with them. Two have dissented. Midwifery directors from Ireland’s maternity hospitals have voiced their support for the move.

On Thursday, Prof Peter Boylan, former master of Holles Street, another stalwart of the Together for Yes campaign, appears before the committee to tell them why he has very grave reservations about the deal as it stands. He may be right, in which case a lot of very credible people are wrong.

As Bríd Smith said, we are in the middle of something weird.

Maybe Elvis had it right. We can’t go on forever with suspicious minds.