Health Minister: 'Women in Ireland are sick of being told what is in their best interests'

Stephen Donnelly condemned the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group after it rejected calls to sell the site where the National Maternity Hospital is to be built
Health Minister: 'Women in Ireland are sick of being told what is in their best interests'

By James Ward, PA

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has called on St Vincent’s Healthcare Group to show “more respect” for the people of Ireland.

The company, which owns the site on which the National Maternity Hospital is set to built, has rejected calls to sell it.

The Government has said it will re-engage with St Vincent’s and the Religious Sisters of Charity about buying the land for the new hospital, insisting it must be publicly-owned and free from religious ethos.

Mr Donnelly said he believed women in Ireland “are sick of being told what is in their best interests when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health.”

Ahead of a Dáil motion on Wednesday, calling for the new facility to be built on land owned by the State, St Vincent’s issued a statement saying it “must retain ownership of the site”.

Hospital cleanliness
St Vincent’s University Hospital in South Dublin, the site where the National Maternity Hospital is to be located (Niall Carson/PA)

Mr Donnelly is due to meet the Order for negotiations, but has criticised its approach so far and condemned its statement as “unhelpful”.

He said: “I don’t think setting out conditions like that in press releases is helpful.

“The people of Ireland fund St Vincent’s. I think, given that, the people of Ireland are owed more respect than to be told by press release by St Vincent’s what is or is not going to happen.”

“I don’t think that is a helpful thing for them to be doing, and I think they should be cognisant and have a bit more respect for the people of Ireland, who fund their hospital” he told RTE’s Morning Ireland.

“I don’t think that’s the way to do business. These conversations need to be held and they need to be held respectfully.”

The minister said he would meet stakeholders “soon” to negotiate the issue.

“What I think this comes down to is women in Ireland want to own their own maternity hospital, and they want to own the land that their maternity hospital is built on,” he added.

“I think women in Ireland are sick of being told what is in their best interests when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health.”

Compulsory purchase

Mr Donnelly rejected calls for the Government to force the sale of the land by compulsory purchase order (CPO).

“That is not a route that resolves any problems quickly,” he said. “You can end up in court for years.

“What we want to see is a decades-long collaboration between St Vincent’s and the maternity hospital. You don’t start those relationships in court.”

Plans to relocate the National Maternity Hospital from Holles Street to the St Vincent’s University Hospital campus in Dublin 4 have been beset by delays.

Last week, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said there is a risk that the long-awaited move may not go ahead as planned at the Elm Park site, amid concerns over its governance and ownership.

He said a new location may need to be found for the hospital if the Government’s red lines are not met.

The Social Democrats’ motion, demanding the new hospital is constructed on land owned by the State and is publicly governed, has not been opposed by the Government.

Mr Donnelly told the Dáil on Wednesday that it is not essential for the Government to own the land to ensure clinical independence.

“It is certainly the case that full independence can be achieved without owning the land,” he said.

“Many primary care centres around Ireland are in buildings and on land owned by third parties.

“Nobody would reasonably suggest that those landlords could dictate what services GPs and clinicians could or could not provide within those buildings.”

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shorthall said the deal struck with SVHG “bears further scrutiny”.

She told the Dáil: “It entails three tiers. At the top is the holding company, whose directors are self-appointed. They will be the sole shareholders of the entire St Vincent’s operation, and they can stay in office for up to 14 years.

“Below this unaccountable company will be the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, which will oversee four hospitals, including the proposed new National Maternity Hospital.

“And below that again will be the National Maternity Hospital board, with its own four directors, four directors nominated from St Vincent’s and one ministerial nominee.

“The deal is manifestly bad for the public. The public pays the construction costs, equipment costs, staff costs and maintenance costs.

“In return, St Vincent’s holdings graciously retains ownership of the site, and control of the governance structures.”

She said the Sisters of Charity proposal to transfer its shareholding to St Vincent’s requires Vatican approval, and is subject to canon law.

She said this means it would be required to run the hospital according to Church ethos, which could affect services such as abortion and gender reassignment surgery.

Labour leader Alan Kelly said the SVHG has given “two fingers” to the Health Minister in its statement.

He called for a compulsory purchase order, not just for the Elm Street site, but for the entire hospital campus owned by St Vincent’s.

He said: “I’m sure that’ll make St Vincent’s Hospital Group think about what they’re saying to the Irish people, and the two fingers they gave everyone last night.

“Why don’t we CPO the whole thing, and turn it into one National Campus, a campus for everyone, a campus that is fully owned by the State.”

St Vincent's statement

In a statement on Tuesday, the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group (SVHG) said it was “aware of renewed public controversy” about the site and the planned Dáil debate on Wednesday.

“This hospital is long overdue and we are more than willing to meet with the Government, should it wish to engage with us,” the statement read.

But it said “for the delivery of integrated patient care on the Elm Park campus, SVHG must retain ownership of the site”.

The site on which the hospital is due to be built was owned by religious order the Sisters of Charity, which also founded St Vincent’s University Hospital almost 200 years ago.

SVHG reiterated that the new National Maternity Hospital will be “clinically independent” and “there will be no religious or Vatican influence”.

“All medical procedures, in accordance with the laws of the land, are available in SVHG hospitals, including pregnancy termination, tubal ligation and gender reassignment procedures,” its statement said.

It added that the State’s interests are “protected through the Minister of Health’s ‘Golden Share’, detailed legal agreements and HSE service level agreements”.

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