Proposals to ensure independence of National Maternity Hospital approved

Concerns around Catholic ethos, ownership, governance and control have stalled project

The board of the Health Service Executive has approved new proposals aimed at ensuring the independence of the new National Maternity Hospital.

The board met last month and was told that “very significant progress” had been made in bringing key legal documents to a stage “where they have substantially addressed the board’s concerns”.

The legal framework around the operation of the hospital was approved as well as the constitution that will govern it. Two members of the board dissented.

The Religious Sisters of Charity are due to transfer the ownership of lands at St Vincent’s hospital in Dublin 4 to an independent entity, which would then lease the new maternity hospital to the State.

The plan to move the NMH from Holles Street in Dublin 2 to the Elm Park site has been in train since 2013, but the project has been mired in controversy for years.

Critics have said they fear that a Catholic religious ethos could live on, possibly compromising the hospital’s power to carry out procedures such as pregnancy termination and sterilisation, but this has been rejected by St Vincent’s and the NMH.

Dissenting voices

Sources in Government and the HSE said the move by the board represented a significant development and a memo to Cabinet to approve the plans will likely follow. A meeting of the governors of the National Maternity Hospital has been called for next week and governors have been told there has been progress.

Two board members, Prof Deirdre Madden and Dr Sarah McLoughlin, said however that they did not feel outstanding concerns were adequately addressed and they dissented from the decision to send the approved documents to Cabinet. They told the meeting that they “continued to have concerns regarding legal ownership of the site and building, and the governance and control” of the hospital.

Under revised provisions, the long-delayed €800 million hospital would come under State control for 299 years after its transfer to the NMH from St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, which owns the hospital site.

One of the matters which was resolved in recent weeks involves a forfeiture clause in the proposed lease agreement between the HSE and the healthcare group. The HSE’s audit and risk committee previously warned that this clause could allow the group to take charge of the hospital if the State failed to meet any of its obligations.

Forfeiture provision

The HSE board said it had succeeded in getting an agreement to the removal of any forfeiture provision linked to the completion of the hospital.

The meeting also heard that St Vincent’s Healthcare Group had “undertaken to amend their constitution to remove any reference to a religious ethos or purpose” and said this must be concluded as a “priority”.

“All parties have also agreed to a clear and unambiguous definition of the services to be provided in the new hospital, namely all services which are clinically appropriate and legally permissible.”

Former National Maternity Hospital master Dr Peter Boylan has raised concerns about the wording of this agreement and has written to the chairman of the HSE, Ciaran Devane, asking the board to reconsider the matter. He has also written to the Attorney General.

In his letter to Mr Devane, Dr Boylan said “that if legally permissible services at the new hospital are subject to a test of clinical appropriateness, women will lose both their autonomy and their unfettered right to access all legally permissible reproductive healthcare, including as I have noted, abortion under the terms of the 2018 Act.”

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

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