Taoiseach Micheál Martin has not ruled out placing a compulsory purchase order (CPO) on the site of the new national maternity hospital, but he cautioned that such action could jeopardise the project.
His comments come after the State's attempts to buy the land the new hospital will be built on at Elm Park, Dublin, were thrown into disarray as the St Vincent's Hospital group insisted it would retain ownership.
As Opposition leaders called for the Government to compulsorily purchase the site, Mr Martin told the Dáil he did not accept the hospital group’s argument that it was essential it retain ownership to ensure integrated provision of patient services.
He added that the group “should take note of the consensus in the Oireachtas on this particular issue and should reflect on that and should, in my view, respond appropriately”.
Labour leader Alan Kelly claimed the hospital group was "pushing their weight around" in the row over ownership of the new hospital, the establishment of which was announced in 2013.
The project on which €40 million of public money has already been invested involves the State owning the hospital on land it will lease for 99 years with a possible extension to 149 years.
Mr Kelly told the Taoiseach, “I don’t believe you have any choice” as he called on the Government to place a CPO on the “whole site – public, private, maternity – and create one fantastic campus, formed by the State on land owned by the State”.
Earlier, however, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly signalled it is possible for the new hospital to achieve full clinical and operational independence at the site without State ownership of the land.
Mr Donnelly said on Wednesday it was his “preference” that the site be owned by the State but stressed that full clinical independence could be achieved without it.
Speaking during a debate on the Social Democrats’ motion calling for the site of the new hospital to be 100 per cent in State ownership, Mr Donnelly said: “It is certainly the case that full independence can be achieved without owning the land.
“Many primary care centres around Ireland are in buildings and on land owned by third parties, and nobody would reasonably suggest that those landlords could dictate what services GPs, and clinicians could or could not provide in those buildings.”
Mr Donnelly, who is to meet the hospital group, said he would not bring any proposals to Government without a “water-tight confirmation” about independent governance.
Social Democrats joint leader Róisín Shortall said, however, the hospital group’s annual report in 2017 “stated what future directors of St Vincent’s Holdings will be obliged to do, that is, that they will be obliged to uphold the values and vision of Mother Mary Aikenhead”, founder of the religious Sisters of Charity order which owned the hospital before it transferred it to a private charity.
She said it was not the first time the sisters had run rings around an Irish government and the deal was “manifestly bad for the public”.
Mr Donnelly had criticised the hospital for putting up "red lines" over ownership. But Social Democrats joint leader Catherine Murphy told the Minister that "you have to decide that there is a red line here".
“It’s not about language that you would prefer that the land is owned. It is essential that land is owned,” she said. “You’ve got to decide what side of history you’re on.”
Minister of State for Health Mary Butler expressed concern at some comments from Opposition TDs that she described as “attempts to demonise the Catholic faith, which is unnecessary and disappointing”.