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Diarmaid Ferriter: Concerns over new NMH are understandable given Irish history

Plenty of reminders on church power, especially when it came to women’s welfare

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the removal of article 44.2.1 from the Irish Constitution, which recognised the “special position” of the Catholic Church “as the guardian of the faith professed by the great majority of citizens”. There was much political consensus about this change and little opposition from church leaders.

Just 50.7 per cent of the electorate voted in the referendum; 721,003 in favour of the article’s removal and 133,430 against. This was a Troubles-inspired gesture towards Protestant sensibilities to counteract the assertion that the constitution was a Catholic one for a Catholic State.

Its removal did not thaw northern Protestant reservations about the Republic’s ethos; instead, it underlined that there was an appetite for superficially softening the idea of the Republic as an excessively confessional State during a period of sectarian conflict. The same year, taoiseach Jack Lynch dismissed the idea that the Republic was a church-controlled State: “The church, in fact, plays no part either in the making or the administration of the law of the land”.

Underlining how much that assertion conveniently left out, a few weeks later, Maurice Hayes, a future ombudsman for Northern Ireland, wrote privately to Fine Gael’s Garret FitzGerald, referring to the Catholic Church “as a great incubus resisting change in defence of its own institutional interests”. Those interests were so vast that it hardly needed to concern itself with cosmetic constitutional gestures; it was, in many respects, a state within a State.

It is hardly unreasonable for many to feel uneasy that almost a decade of tangled web weaving surrounds the evolution of the NMH

The church’s influence, despite the upheavals, revelations, social and cultural changes and loss of credibility of recent years, is still strong. Notions of a “post-Catholic” pluralist Republic on the back of increasing secularisation lie alongside the pervasive legacy and extensive involvement of the church in many vital areas of Irish life. That is unsurprising given our history and the ongoing, if much reduced attachment to Catholicism, but it also explains why there is a desire for certainty about whether it is still afforded a “special position” when it comes to pregnant women.

An impression was generated by the Religious Sisters of Charity (RSC) a few years ago that they were to “gift” the Saint Vincent’s Hospital Group (SVHG) to the “people of Ireland”, when what they were doing was transferring ownership to St Vincent’s Holding. It was just one of the unnecessary layers of confusion that have surrounded the proposed new National Maternity Hospital (NMH)

During the week, James Menton, chairman of the SVHG, maintained it was always his board’s determination to “evolve as a secular organisation”, which has been achieved, he wrote, because of the recent transfer of the RSC shareholding to St Vincent’s Holding CLG. The new National Maternity Hospital, the argument goes, will “sever” the link with the church because it will become part of “a secular SVHG”. But while the RSC will not have direct involvement in healthcare it is, as pointed out by Peter Boylan, “a matter of record that . . . directors of St Vincent’s Holding are committed to upholding the values and vision of Mother Mary Aikenhead”. Menton responded to this by maintaining it is a “myth that the values of Mary Aikenhead are some secret code for Catholic control” and that Aikenhead founded the hospital in 1834 to serve the poor, treating patients regardless of religious persuasion.

She did indeed, and Aikenhead and her colleagues did remarkable work, but they also did that during an era when, as the historian of nuns in 19th century Ireland Catríona Clear has pointed out, “evangelical Catholicism . . . appears to have given nuns a sense of shared purpose, and a definite feeling of being part of a movement”, a movement that generated enormous power and control for the church, to the point that 100 years later it was constitutionally afforded its “special position”. We have had no shortage of reminders in recent years of the consequences of that power, especially when it came to the welfare of women.

The other issue is that the State is facilitating the ownership of a publicly funded NMH by a private company with the site being leased. Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has stated “it doesn’t really matter who owns the land”. But it does matter, and it matters particularly given the history of the treatment of pregnant women in this country.

It is hardly unreasonable for many to feel uneasy that almost a decade of tangled web weaving surrounds the evolution of the NMH, or surprising that suspicions linger that all might not be as certain as some of the emphatic public declarations would suggest. Why else would a former master of the NMH and two Health Service Executive board members raise concerns not just about legal ownership of the site and building but also about its governance and control? And why did the “clean break” and “gift” promised by the RSC become so muddied over such an extensive period?