The final bill for the National Maternity Hospital is now expected to reach €800 million, as fresh controversy emerged over claims the State attempted to purchase land for the hospital from an order of nuns.
Politicians were briefed on Thursday that several attempts had been made to purchase the site. After this was reported in The Irish Times, the Religious Sisters of Charity said it had “never at any point been contacted by Government or the State to discuss purchasing the site”.
St Vincent’s Hospital Group (SVHG) – on whose campus the new hospital is to be located – said in a statement: “At no stage was any proposal or approach to sell the land, meaningful or otherwise, received or considered by the board of SVHG.”
However, a letter sent to the Department of Health in May 2017 by St Vincent's, seen by The Irish Times, suggests a sale had been broached.
In a section which argues that separation of ownership or governance would disrupt care for patients, the letter states: “This is why SVHG cannot countenance any sale or lease of part of the land on site, or any separate ownership of a hospital on site”.
It states its concerns on ownership stem from the operation of a “safe, integrated system of governance and medical protocols”.
A spokeswoman for SVHG said: “No meaningful approach was received or considered by the board. All this letter demonstrates is that we let it be known why we could not consider a land sale.”
Concerns over governance arrangements at the hospital have stalled progress for years, while cost projections have grown.
Originally in the region of €150 million, the most recent estimate was in the region of €350 million, with a firm expectation that it would rise further.
On Friday, a spokesman for Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said: "The building infrastructure cost has been priced at €500 million. Further commissioning costs, including fit-out and transferring an entire hospital to a new site, will be a further €300 million."
Aside from costs, the complex row over the project has its roots in concerns over whether Catholic ethos could constrain the new hospital from carrying out abortions, sterilisations or other procedures contrary to Vatican teaching.
The site is to be transferred to a charitable entity called St Vincent’s Holdings. Campaigners have criticised the structure of the deal and claimed the hospital may be constrained in the procedures it can carry out.
Campaigners and some Opposition politicians say the construction of the hospital on lands once controlled by the church, and now by a company established by St Vincent’s, which the order was involved in running until 2017, may lead to this being the case.
They have also raised concerns over the constitution of the new charity to which the lands are being transferred.
The order has rejected these concerns, saying it will have no role in the operation or ethos of the hospital. The Government has said procedures legal in the State will be carried out.
On Thursday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar raised concerns over other aspects of the plan, specifically over the lease for the lands and governance arrangements, saying a significant number of members of the board should be appointed by Government.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on Friday that in an “ideal world” the State should own hospitals where substantial funding was provided.
Mr Martin urged stakeholders – specifying he was not talking about the State – in the project to remember that the "ultimate objective" is to "look after the women of Ireland, and not to be becoming overly obsessive about ownership".
Recent events have raised the political temperature: some Government sources argue the previous administration was responsible for steps taken around the lease and governance, and fear revisiting these areas could further delay the project. The current plan envisages a 99-year lease, with a clause to extend by a further 50 years on expiry of the initial term.
It is understood a draft memo for Cabinet on the matter went to leaders of the three Coalition parties in recent weeks, but progressed no further after concerns were raised. Negotiations over the project are ongoing.
The Opposition is set to ratchet up pressure on the Government. Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall said “the idea of gifting an asset of this scale to a private entity is ludicrous”.
Her party will next week put down a Dáil motion on the matter, calling on Government to ensure the hospital is constructed on State land, and that to guarantee its secular ethos, it be fully owned and governed by the State.
People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith said the current approach “flies in the face of Sláintecare [and] the history of women’s healthcare in this country”. She added: “Post repeal, it’s totally unacceptable.”