The National Maternity Hospital – an expensive power grab

Sir, – You report on new proposals aimed at advancing the stalled €800 million National Maternity Hospital (NMH) relocation project (News, February 10th). The latest version of the HSE licence for the new hospital will apparently "include legal measures requiring it to provide all medical procedures allowed under Irish law". At first glance this might appear to be an historic breakthrough: are the intended future owners of the new NMH – the Vatican-approved St Vincent's Holdings, successors to the Religious Sisters of Charity – now committing explicitly to guaranteeing the provision of abortion, sterilisation, IVF, etc, in the new hospital?

Not so, it turns out. The text of the licence “will not set down a list of specific procedures permitted under Irish law”.

Are we to believe that a licence that does not even contain the words “abortion” or “sterilisation” can provide a legal guarantee that the new hospital will provide precisely those services?

If, as reported, the objective is to “close off” various concerns, including those relating to Catholic ethos in the new hospital, it fails utterly.


No Irish government can guarantee the provision of all legal reproductive healthcare in the new hospital unless it is State-owned on State land, as the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said to the Dáil it would be in November 2019.

This Government now has three choices.

First, proceed with the current plan and build the hospital, then hand it into the 100 per cent ownership of a private company on the record as being mandated to uphold the values of the Catholic Religious Sisters of Charity.

Second, only proceed if the hospital is indeed State-owned on State land. This seems impossible at Elm Park, given the Sisters’ refusal to sell the site and the reluctance of the Government to issue a compulsory purchase order.

Third, build the hospital on an HSE-owned site such as Tallaght Hospital to ensure independent clinical governance.

Nine years after the project was first announced, there appears to be an imminent risk that the current Government is sleepwalking into spending what will probably exceed €1 billion on a maternity hospital that will ultimately take its direction from the Vatican rather than the State.

Given the consistent public and political opposition over the last six years, it cannot be said as in other contexts that “no one shouted stop”. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 6.

Sir, – The headline of your lead article on the new National Maternity Hospital (“Maternity hospital to provide all medical procedures”, News, February 10th) is slightly misleading.

No such schedule is to be drawn up, it seems.

While the agreement between the HSE, the NMH and Vincent’s is to be amended to reflect the fact that procedures at the new hospital will include “anything permissible under Irish law”, Vincent’s has refused to specify the procedures in question.

The HSE has agreed to license Vincent’s to run the new hospital on foot of this amendment. The new language is evidently designed to reflect the depth of the company’s commitment to providing unspecified procedures, and to deflect public opposition to the Government’s plan to gift the new hospital to a Catholic congregation.

By way of background, the hospital is to be built on land owned by the Religious Sisters of Charity (and by the Vatican, under church law). The nuns’ new holding company is set to own the freehold of the land. Vincent’s has agreed to lease the land to the State on condition it grants a licence back to itself to run the hospital for the entire duration of the lease. The State has agreed, supinely, to Vincent’s demand. This licence largely vitiates the lease: the State as tenant has ceded the management and control of the hospital to its landlord, Vincent’s.

The lease and its licence is an outright win-win for Vincent’s, legally obliging the State to build and maintain the hospital while having no control over the running of the proposed facility, nor any ownership, beyond the shell of the new build.

As a Catholic lay trust, Vincent’s will not provide any procedure prohibited by Rome, such as abortion, on land that is owned by Rome. Company directors are obliged under their constitution to “be true” to the values of Mary Aikenhead (the founder of the congregation). This is a duty that is seen in Rome and in Armagh to bind board members, legally, to the code of the Religious Sisters of Charity. Church lawyers at the highest level in the Vatican and in Ireland have evidently satisfied themselves on this point.

This project, long nurtured by the congregation and its company, needs to be seen for what it is: a power grab for Ireland’s new national maternity hospital, now slated to cost taxpayers up to a billion or more. No modern democratic European state would countenance building and financing (in perpetuity) a private Catholic maternity hospital, as Ireland has done to date.

There is still time to change course. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 7.