Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has insisted that he will not tolerate governance with any religious ethos at the new national maternity hospital (NMH) being built on the St Vincent's hospital complex in Dublin.
He told the Dáil that “services will be provided in accordance with the law and national policies. That is all.”
But Independent TD Catherine Connolly called for an end to the "Kafkaesque" arrangements "between holding companies and designated companies" for the hospital.
“It is a puppet on a string for the controlling Catholic religion behind that,” she said. “I would say the same thing about any religion. It has no place in a public hospital.”
They were speaking during a debate on a motion about maternity services introduced by Ms Connolly.
Mr Donnelly said: “I will not countenance any new maternity hospital that has any governance or influence whatsoever involving any religious ethos.
“That is an absolute commitment,” he said, reiterating a pledge he made to the Oireachtas health committee and again on Tuesday to the National Women’s Council of Ireland that has been campaigning on the services.
Plans to move the NMH from Holles Street in Dublin 2 to the St Vincent’s University Hospital campus at Elm Park have been delayed amid concerns about ownership and religious ethos. The legal framework around the planned relocation is nearing completion.
Describing the project as “unprecedented and complex” Mr Donnelly said the legal framework would “protect the State’s investment in the new hospital and ensure that it remains in State ownership.
“The legal framework will also ensure that health services at the new hospital will be provided without religious, ethnic or other distinction.”
However, Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore said the Minister's statement that services would be provided without religious, ethnic or other distinction "means the hospital would not discriminate against people on their religion or ethnicity in the context of access to the hospital". That "does not mean that the services provided will be without religious distinction".
She added that Mr Donnelly’s statement that services would be provided in accordance with law and national policy “completely rings hollow” because partners were not allowed into maternity units despite the Minister and chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan saying there was no legal basis or health reason to prevent them attending.
“It is clear that the Minister does not have control over what is happening in the hospitals across the State.”
Ms Connolly introduced the motion which calls on the Government to “ensure the public ownership and operation of the new National Maternity Hospital”.
The motion, which the Government supports, calls for a comprehensive “time-bound” implementation plan for the 2016-2026 national maternity strategy. It also demands a plan for the implementation of the recommendations of the 2020 Hiqa report on better maternity standards with a focus on obstetric emergencies.
The Galway West TD said if the deaths of the women and children who have died or been disabled in operations because of a lack of basic maternity services, “are to mean anything, we need a commitment to a national maternity hospital that is publicly owned and operated on public land”.
She said if that means “buying the site or a compulsory purchase order, so be it”.
Ms Connolly said she was tired of the “Kafkaesque” arrangements “between holding companies and designated companies” for the hospital.
She asked the Minister to confirm “that he is fully committed to the National Maternity Hospital being in full public ownership on public land, whether it is bought through a contract or by compulsory purchase”.
Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane said "why we had to go down the route of establishing a company to manage the land and the hospital, is beyond me". He said the land should have been transferred or gifted to the State and "then the national maternity hospital would be fully owned by the State.
“The land would be owned and managed by the HSE as opposed to being managed by others on a board.”
Labour leader Alan Kelly said the situation was "deadlocked" and warned that until ownership structures were sorted out "we cannot proceed".
Mr Kelly, the party’s health spokesman said the issue had been ongoing since 2017 and the officials who drove the original, incorrect decision “have questions to answer” as did the government of the day.
He warned Mr Donnelly that “frankly, he will not be doing anything unless he does something about the ownership model that was structured and put in place in 2017 and has been thundering along since then”.
“This nettle must be grasped. The model will not work unless this is done through compulsory purchase order or is gifted. It is as simple as that,” said Mr Kelly.