Referendum could be held on State ownership of maternity hospital

Church suffering recurring case of “developer’s wife syndrome” - Bacik

A constitutional referendum on whether the State should take ownership of the land on which the new national maternity hospital will be constructed could be held after the facility is built, the Seanad has heard.

Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway said the project needs to go ahead as quickly as possible but he suggested that, in the future a referendum could be considered about State ownership of the site "so that in 50 or 100 years' time no future representatives from a future St. Vincent's Healthcare Group can try to create a scenario where there is undue influence".

He was speaking during a debate on the controversy surrounding the ownership and governance of the facility.

The National Maternity Hospital is due to relocate from Holles Street to the campus of St Vincent’s Hospital in South Dublin. The Government has said it wants to own the land on which the hospital will be built, rather than having a 99-year lease, which had been envisaged.

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However, Labour Senator Ivana Bacik said "we certainly do not need a constitutional amendment. We have a compulsory purchase order procedure and that should be used."

‘Developer’s wife syndrome’

Ms Bacik warned of the “endless difficulties” with the lease arrangements and she described the way religious orders and church authorities divest ownership in properties as “developer’s wife syndrome”.

She said it is divested into a “Catholic successor company” in “the same way a male developer will often divest assets to his spouse in order to free himself of asset ownership”.

“We have seen this used to serious effect by religious bodies in the past,” she said, adding that “I have been involved in a school divestment in which we saw this happen and we have seen endless difficulties with a lease arrangement in this context”.

Minister of State for Health Mary Butler, who opened the debate, said that in 2017 the minister for health formally asked St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group to consider an outright site transfer but this was not agreed.

Ms Butler said the Government recognises “that the State does not have an automatic right to the uniform trust of the women of this country, given the way they have been failed in the past”.

But she re-iterated comments from Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly who “stated categorically that he will not be bringing any proposals to the Cabinet unless he is absolutely satisfied that the State’s clear objectives are met through a cast-iron framework”.

Fianna Fáil Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee said the State will own the hospital building on the site and “you can get bullet-proof long leases there and it is de facto ownership”.

‘Excellent and ethical care’

Independent Sharon Keogan said the Catholic Church “is entitled to be involved in healthcare, and it has a great record in providing excellent and ethical care, but it has clearly stepped back from involvement in the new national maternity hospital”.

She said that regardless of whether the nuns retained ownership of the land, the “new national maternity hospital is going to facilitate all services it is legally permitted to do in law”.

Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly suggested that “people within the Catholic church might like to think about what kind of pressure they can put on their own church”, about gifting the land to the State.

Fianna Fáil Senator Erin McGreehan said “in 149 or 150 years, we should not be kicking the can down the road and having the Fianna Fáil Government of 150 years time dealing with the renegotiation of another lease and the questions about whether it is Catholic-run or waiting for the Pope to write another letter”.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times

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