Michelle Devane, PA
The Government has concerns over the ownership of the land of the new national maternity hospital, the Tánaiste has said.
Leo Varadkar told the Dáil there are “problems, quite frankly, going forward” with the new hospital project on the Elm Park site in Dublin 4.
Plans to relocate the national maternity hospital at Holles Street to the St Vincent’s University Hospital campus in south Dublin have been beset by delays.
Last year, the Sisters of Charity said it intended to gift 29 acres of land at the St Vincent’s Hospital site to the Irish people, with ownership of the land being transferred by the religious order to a new independent charity St Vincent’s Holdings. The land is worth €200 million.
Mr Varadkar said the new hospital would be owned by the State and that all services currently available at Holles Street, including terminations and sterilisations, will be available at the new site.
“But the Government does have a big concern about two other aspects,” the Fine Gael leader told the Dáil.
Tanaiste confirms campaigners concerns on maternity hospital. We didn't win repeal to have reproductive health seen as a gift from any religious order:if the board, exe and staff are still appointed by that order we can not be assured fully @DunL4Choice @OurMatHosp @FergalBowers https://t.co/WOWqtXs6q3
— Brid Smith TD (@bridsmithTD) June 17, 2021
“One is the ownership of the land that the hospital will be built on. That has not been gifted to the State. It’s been gifted to a charity.
“It’s proposed that there would be a 99-year lease to the State. We’ve a difficulty with that. We don’t think the safeguards around that are strong enough.”
The Tánaiste said the Government also had a “difficulty” with the governance of the new hospital.
“It’s going to be a voluntary hospital. That’s okay, there are loads of voluntary hospitals, however the board will not be appointed by the Government. That’s a real difficulty, too, because a hospital that is almost fully funded by the State should have a significant number or majority of the board appointed by the Government.”
He added the Government was working through those issues at present.
Mr Varadkar voiced the concerns in response to People Before Profit TD Brid Smith, who raised the matter during Leaders’ Questions.
Ms Smith said the nuns would no longer have any involvement in the day-to-day management of the hospital but they “may be able to appoint directors and are entitled to appoint their successors to the holding company”.
“I don’t think the women of this country, those of us who fought so hard, should go forward with a new maternity hospital that is still dominated by the (Catholic) ethos of the St Vincent’s Group,” she said.
Ms Smith added that questions needed to be answered and that she could not accept the guarantee that full reproductive rights, including gender realignment, will be available, “because the constitution of the new holding company specifically states that its core values are identical to that of the St Vincent’s Group”.
“Ideally the State should purchase the site by compulsory purchase order, fully pay for it and build it and staff it and run it via the State without any interference from a charity that the nuns can appoint directors to,” she told the Dáil.
“That’s the only way out of this.”
Mr Varadkar said “it was an absolute requirement” that any procedures that are legal in this State are available in this hospital.
“There can be no ambiguity of that, that includes sterilisation, IVT, assisted reproduction and terminations,” he said,
He agreed that the “ideal scenario” would be full ownership of the site by the State, but he said the integrated design of the building with existing buildings on the site “makes it tricky”.
Last week, the Religious Sisters of Charity called on the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly to expedite the hospital transfer.
In a statement, it said: “There is much public discussion in relation to the Religious Sisters of Charity and whether we are still, or will be involved in the management of St Vincent’s Hospital, the new maternity hospital or the new independent charity set up to take over the ownership of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group from the Religious Sisters of Charity. The answer is no.
“The Religious Sisters of Charity have no involvement now and will not have any future role in the management of St Vincent’s Hospital. We will have no role, whatsoever, in St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, the new independent charity or the new maternity hospital.”
Sinn Féin’s health spokesman David Cullinane welcomed the “change in tone” from the Tánaiste about the issue.
Mr Cullinane said: “It is a welcome development that the Government are looking at the options available to it for ensuring the land is held in public ownership.
“Whether the land is gifted to the State or purchased, this must be agreed and happen sooner rather than later.
“There is now agreement across the political spectrum that the land should be held in public, and not private or religious, ownership.
“The only way to guarantee certainty and resolve concerns around governance and future ownership of the site is for the State to own it.
“The entire site, hospital and land must be entirely free of any potential for outside interference and solely managed by the State.”
He added that it was the “only way” to guarantee women’s healthcare needs are addressed “without any conflict”.