NMH master ‘alarmed by emotive misinformation’ around hospital

CPO would end co-operation on National Maternity Hospital, Minister warns

The current master of the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) has told the Oireachtas health committee he is "alarmed by the combination of emotive misinformation and misunderstanding that prevails" in discussions about the new hospital.

In his opening statement to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health, Prof Shane Higgins told TDs and senators that it has been “difficult to hear claims that the proposed move to Elm Park is some kind surrender to the church”.

The committee met on Thursday to discuss concerns around the planned relocation of the NMH from Holles Street in Dublin to the St Vincent’s campus.

The concerns centre on governance, ownership and ethos given the new hospital will be located on land which will be leased back for 299 years by a new company, St Vincent’s Holdings.

The Religious Sisters of Charity recently transferred their shareholding to the company and said they would have no further involvement in healthcare on the campus.

Speaking at the committee hearing, Prof Higgins said: “Legitimate concerns are welcome and deserve every consideration, but we must also deal in facts, and I am alarmed by the combination of emotive misinformation and misunderstanding that prevails.

“Just because the contracts underpinning the new hospital appear complex does not indicate the church stealing influence over women’s reproductive choices through clever contractual stealth.”

Prof Higgins said the NMH currently has no constraints on the procedures it offers patients and this will continue when it relocates.

“The misplaced fear that the phrase ‘clinically appropriate’ is a clever legal code word to allow the Vatican stop certain procedures needs to be challenged.

“This wording serves as future-proofing, to ensure that the new maternity hospital cannot be converted into any other type of hospital in the future. . . All procedures carried out in the hospital on a daily basis are clinically appropriate, the alternative is inconceivable.”

He also said he would support any move to legally clarify what “clinically appropriate” means and that he would also work with any request to remove it from legal documents.

Red flag

Former master of the NMH Peter Boylan has conversely argued at the Oireachtas committee that the inclusion of the phrase “clinically appropriate” for procedures that will available in the new NMH is “a major red flag”.

“Providing healthcare on the basis of this test removes autonomy from women and gives the sole decision-making capacity to doctors. These words qualify access to services and enshrine justification for refusing legally permissible treatments,” Mr Boylan said.

Meanwhile, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said a compulsory purchase order (CPO) of the land at the site of the proposed new NMH "might well collapse" the partnership with St Vincent's Holdings CLG and would end co-operation on the project.

Speaking in the Dáil on Thursday, Mr Donnelly said he wanted to be clear: “The nuns are gone.”

Sinn Féin will bring forward a fresh Dáil motion next week calling on the Government to ensure the new hospital is built on land owned by the State.

Both Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar indicated on Thursday that the Cabinet would proceed with plans to approve a memo on the relocation at its next meeting, on Tuesday.

The fresh Sinn Féin motion will bring the controversy into another political week with a vote scheduled for next Wednesday evening.

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times