By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA
The chair of the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group (SVHG) has said they are open to whether the phrase “clinically appropriate” in the ownership documents relating to the co-location of the National Maternity Hospital “could be deleted, could be defined, or could stay”.
In a lengthy appearance before the Oireachtas Health Committee, James Menton stressed that when the religious order the Sisters of Charity transferred its shares to the registered charity St Vincent’s Holdings, it was done “without any conditions” related to religion.
SVHG, which is also a registered charity, will own the land the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) is to be co-located on with St Vincent’s hospital, if the Government’s plan for co-location is approved.
Controversy has continued for two weeks over the ownership structure of the new NMH if it is co-located on St Vincent’s Hospital’s Elm Park campus, with critics asking whether there would be religious interference at the new NMH and seeking clarification of the phrase “clinically appropriate” in the hospital’s constitution or lease, particularly about its meaning in relation to women who seek legally permissible abortions.
Speaking to TDs and senators on Monday, Mr Menton said there is “no vehicle in the registered constitutions of either company by which any religious authority or control can be exerted”.
“The only reason that we are offering a lease ownership of this land upon which the State will finance the construction of, and own effectively for 299 years at an annual rent of 10 euro per annum, is that that offers protections to both ourselves and Holles Street in what that building will be used for.
“And that’s clearly set out in the lease.”
On the suggestion that the land should be gifted to the State, Donal O’Raghallaigh, a partner solicitor at McCann Fitzgerald for the SVHG, told the committee that SVHG has to have regard to how it disposes of assets.
“A charity can’t just give away property willy-nilly, there is a consideration process in relation to the disposal of land, whether that’s by lease or whether that’s by freehold.”
“If in the event that the freehold interest in this land is sold,” Mr Mention added, “it doesn’t disturb the 299 ownership-lease interest that the State has.
“It’s academic, it’s absolutely academic in substance.
“It’s very much an academic point in law.”
When asked about the reason for the withdrawal of the religious order from SVHG, Mr Menton said: “I can’t speak for the motivation of the Sisters of Charity, other than they wanted to cease their involvement in Irish healthcare.
“We wanted to be a secular organisation to respond to the needs of our patients in modern Ireland.
“And there was a mutually inclusive objective there satisfied.
“I can tell you categorically we would have never accepted, never accepted as a board, a situation where there was some legacy 100 years from now or 150 years from now that involved any mitigation of the objective of becoming a secular organisation.”
Dr John Holian, a consultant and board member of SVHG, said that his appointment in 2010 predated the departure of the Sisters of Charity by several years.
“So although it’s possible to argue that in theory, a Catholic ethos pertained until their departure, that is not, and I can say that on the record, that is not what applied in practice.”
Mr Menton said that if SVHG had not been approached about the co-location of the maternity hospital, “I haven’t a scintilla of doubt in my mind that we would have a new holding company with the same constitutions”, adding that he first had discussions about the withdrawal of the Sisters of Charity’s involvement was shortly after he took up the job in 2014.
He said that the process to remove religious iconography from St Vincent’s had started, that iconography had been removed from the Elm Park campus, and that it would be something the board would consider further in the coming months.
In response to questions put forward by Social Democrats co-leader and TD Róisín Shortall, Mr Menton said that he “rejects categorically that the financial situation at St Vincent’s Healthcare Group is in any way in doubt”.
“Like any other business in the last two years, financially our performance has suffered slightly.
“But as a board, we are absolutely, categorically satisfied with the viability of St Vincent’s group.”
The final step in the transfer of ownership of the hospital group from the Sisters of Charity to St Vincent’s Holdings took place in April 2022.
Cabinet is due to make a decision on whether to approve the Government’s plan next Tuesday.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin, speaking to reporters on Monday, said he understood that the phrase “clinically appropriate” would remain in the legal agreement.
“We haven’t made changes to the legal documents,” he said.
He said those documents were agreed between the parties involved in the new hospital.
Mr Martin offered a robust defence of the plans for the new national maternity hospital and defended the arrangements in place.
He said that there had been a “good debate” since Cabinet approval for the plans was delayed.
“All lawfully permitted services will be provided by this new hospital,” he said.