The Government's decision to proceed with the building of the new National Maternity Hospital is a welcome sign that the Taoiseach and his Ministers are willing to face up to the Opposition, the social media mob and assorted objectors on an issue of major national importance.
One of the weaknesses of the Coalition since it took office in June 2020 has been a tendency to run scared in the face of contrived outrage, usually fomented by a combination of Opposition politicians and vested interests, often mistakenly portrayed as representing public opinion.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin delivered a compelling argument in the Dáil during the week about why it was time to bring the long-running controversy over the maternity hospital to a close and get on with the building of the facility beside St Vincent’s hospital in Dublin.
“I am not prepared to allow this to go on for another couple of years with no decision taken. I know how these things get dragged on for a variety of reasons. I am determined that we move on and build modern, proper facilities for women in the 21st century,” he told Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, rejecting her objections to the plan.
It is worth recalling that the initial Government decision to proceed with the building of the hospital was taken in 2013 and planning permission was granted in 2017. The apparently interminable delay was caused by claims that the hospital would be subject to dictates from the nuns who run St Vincent’s hospital.
This spurious notion was fostered by a combination of standard political opposition to the government of the day in alliance with campaigners who seem intent on fighting the battle of long ago rather than facing up to the needs of women and children of Ireland today.
Those who know the reality of how the National Maternity Hospital operates and appreciate the need for a modern, new facility have no doubts about the plan. It is notable that all the national directors of midwifery across the country, representing every maternity unit, urged that the hospital should go ahead. The director of Holles Street, all the assistant directors of midwifery at the hospital and 52 clinicians working there wrote a letter to the Government pleading for it to go ahead.
The public purse is not bottomless, as the Opposition would have people believe, and some hard choices will have to be made
While the State will not own the land at St Vincent’s, the hospital will be in State ownership for the next 300 years, at a nominal rent of €10 a year, and will provide all lawful and legally permissible services. That reality has been obscured in welter of argument and counter-argument but the Government has thankfully brought the matter to a close in the interests of women and their babies.
Politically the cost has been the temporary loss of two Green Party TDs, Neasa Hourigan and Patrick Costello, but in reality it was hardly unexpected. The pair opposed their party’s decision to go into coalition in the first place and are liable to go overboard at regular intervals during the Government’s lifetime.
What is far more important is that the Coalition showed a unity of purpose on a contentious national issue. The three party leaders stuck together not simply to defend the decision but to explain it in clear terms to the public who may well have been confused by all the noise around the issue.
That unity of purpose will be required during the second half of the Coalition’s term, with a succession of huge issues looming on the horizon. The most immediate one is the cost-of-living crisis arising from the return of inflation as a feature of daily life. Dealing with the fallout will not be easy as the temptation will be to adopt alleviation measures which could have the effect of making the problem worse.
Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath have done a good job in managing the public finances over the past two years and have left the exchequer with some room to manoeuvre in a crisis. However, the public purse is not bottomless, as the Opposition would have people believe, and some hard choices will have to be made in the year ahead.
Making the right decisions is one thing but explaining the rationale to the public and bringing a majority of people along in the face of the inevitable barrage of criticism will be even more difficult. That is why a clear, coherent message from the Government will be vital.
The other immediate big issue is Brexit but as far as domestic politics goes that will not be nearly as difficult, at least in the short term. There is a broad national consensus on the need to defend the Northern Ireland protocol and standing up to the British is hardly unpopular.
In the longer term, though, the Government could face difficult choices if we end up with a trade war between the European Union and the UK. In a worst-case scenario that could lead to the abandonment of the protocol and the introduction of tariffs on trade between the Republic and the UK, resulting in the hard Border everybody has worked so hard to avoid.