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Fintan O'Toole: Compulsory purchase OK for Mayo farmer's land but State will not do the same for NMH

Twenty years ago, the State threw its full weight behind the coercion of small landowners

In the conflict over the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH), the Government has effectively ruled out the compulsory acquisition of the land on which it is to be built. The State has not always been so timid.

Twenty years ago, on November 15th, 2001, the minister for the marine and natural resources, Fianna Fáil’s Frank Fahey, issued Statutory Instrument 517. It gave him the power to make compulsory acquisition orders (CAOs) for lands in the Erris peninsula in Co Mayo.

More remarkably, it gave him the power to issue those CAOs on behalf of a private company, Enterprise Energy Ireland. These rights were subsequently passed on to one of the global giants of fossil fuel extraction, Shell.

The lands in question were those required for a pipeline taking natural gas under very high pressure from the Corrib offshore field to a terminal to be constructed at Ballinaboy. The pipeline would run, in places, very close to the homes of the landowners.


In his report on the project, An Bord Pleanála’s senior inspector, Kevin Moore, wrote that because of “public safety concerns, adverse visual, ecological and traffic impacts, and a range of other environmental impacts”, it “defies any rational understanding of the term ‘sustainability’”.

This did not matter. When a group of the landowners met the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern during the 2002 election campaign, he told them “the project was in the national interest and that it was going to go through”.

In April 2005, Shell got a court injunction against those landowners who were refusing to give the company’s employees access to their land. In June, the High Court sent five of those landowners – Micheál Ó Seighin, Vincent McGrath, Philip McGrath, Willie Corduff and Brendan Philbin – to jail for refusing to comply with the injunction.

They were sent to Cloverhill prison in west Dublin “indefinitely”. They stayed there for three months until, at the end of September 2005, Shell suspended the injunction. The men were released, not because the State demanded it, but because their imprisonment had become an embarrassment to Shell.

So, when the “national interest” required it, the State was capable not merely of compulsorily setting aside the property rights of ordinary Irish citizens but of allowing those who refused to accept this order to be criminalised and imprisoned.

The NMH is, by definition, in the national interest. So is the ownership and control of a facility for the women and babies of Ireland that will cost the State a minimum of €800 million to build. One might even dare to suggest that it is more in the national interest than the Corrib pipeline, which was and is a private commercial project.

Why was the full force of the State, up to and including the imprisonment of property owners, brought to bear in west Mayo, and yet its use in Dublin 4 cannot be contemplated? The answer is obvious enough: power.

The Erris landowners were small farmers, fishing people, ordinary citizens. They were worried about their own safety and that of their families. (Those concerns were later vindicated when the route of the pipeline was changed for safety reasons.) But what were those anxieties compared with the power of a huge multinational company with the full weight of the State behind it?

Now try to imagine the State enforcing a CAO against St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, the owner of the hospital campus and the land on which the NMH is to be built. You can’t, can you? The very idea is unthinkable.

This is an institution that sees no reason why it should bow to mere democracy

The board of St Vincent's is not made up of small farmers or fishers. It is chaired by James Menton, a former partner in KPMG who also chaired the property company Lisneys. Other members include the owner of one of the country's largest pharmacy chains and a former chief executive of Ireland's biggest company CRH.

(As it happens, James Menton is also in the fossil fuel business as a director of the oil and gas exploration company Providence Resources. The Sisters of Charity, who established St Vincent’s, always did believe they had Providence on their side.)

You can see how that power manifests itself simply by reading the statement issued last week by St Vincent’s, curtly informing the elected Government of the Republic that it intended to retain ownership of the NMH site.

The reasons it cited – that it would not be possible otherwise to move between the different hospitals on the campus – are nonsensical. Many other hospital campuses operate with different ownership regimes on the same site. But reasons are beside the point, which is that this is an institution that sees no reason why it should bow to mere democracy. It believes it has the power to demand that a vast public project be shaped around its own institutional desires.

That is why this moment is so crucial. If the Government cedes ownership and control of the new hospital, it will reinforce the lesson that the public good will always lose out to private interests in struggles of power. If it refuses to do so, it can set a very different precedent for the next century of the life of the State.