THE Irish Health Minister, Simon Harris, has indicated that the State will seek to secure part-ownership of a new €300-million maternity hospital in Dublin, which is at the centre of a public row after revelations that it is to be built and owned by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity.
The new hospital is planned to replace the National Maternity Hospital (NMH), in Holles Street, and would be built alongside the Order’s general hospital at Elm Park, in south Dublin.
On Monday, Mr Harris said that he was looking at ways in which the State would have some control over the facility by means of a lease, or “lien”, on the building, which is due to be completed and opened in 2022.
His statement comes after weeks of disquiet among members of the public and leading obstetricians who objected to the handing over of a state-funded hospital to a religious order amid fears that RC ethics would prevent procedures, including contraception, IVF, and abortion.
Survivors of the Magdalene Laundries and mother-and-baby homes run by the same order, together with Amnesty International Ireland, as well as prominent cross-party politicians and three former Masters of the present NMH, have also opposed the deal, which was brokered by the former chairman of the Workplace Relations Committee, Kevin Mulvey, after 18 months of negotiations between St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, owned by the Sisters of Charity, and the NMH board.
The present NMH has been described as no longer fit for its purpose by its current Master, Dr Rhona Mahony, who said on the radio: “Let me be very clear: the nuns will not be running this hospital; it will not be under Catholic ethos: it will be completely independent.”
The RC Bishop of Elphin, Dr Kevin Doran, said, however, that any RC-run health-care operator had a responsibility to be true to RC teachings and medical ethics, and Canon Law applied to property owned by the RC Church.
After a meeting of the board, the former Master of the NMH, Dr Peter Boylan, resigned as a member. He had previously been asked to resign after he had said that the plan to grant ownership of the new hospital to the nuns was “almost like an episode of Father Ted”, but had refused.
At the weekend, the doctor charged by the Health Service Executive with planning the new facility, Dr Chris Fitzpatrick, also resigned, in solidarity with his colleague. Dr Fitzpatrick, a former Master of the Coombe maternity hospital in the city, said afterwards that, in modern Ireland, it was time to “unpick” the “outmoded” relationships between Church and State as well as between public and private morality — which, he said, were “unfit for a modern, secular, pluralist, and compassionate European republic”.
The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Brendan Carr, who is also a member of the NMH board, said that the original decision on ownership was made by some members “under duress”, and described the atmosphere at the latest meeting as oppressive.
“I thought the attitude of some of the senior people on the board to the very real concerns that the public have is astonishing”, he said. “There was no consideration given whatsoever to the concerns raised in the past number of days. I thought it was done in a very bullying and intimidatory way.”
Planning permission for the hospital is expected in August; Mr Harris said that this would allow plenty of time to work out a means to include State ownership.