Thursday, 12 May 2022
National Maternity Hospital: Statements
I am speaking on behalf of Deputy Mattie McGrath, who sends his apologies. He cannot be here today because he is having a surgical procedure carried out.
The plan to move the National Maternity Hospital from Holles Street in central Dublin to the St. Vincent's campus has been in train since 2013, but the project has been mired in controversy for many years. The Religious Sisters of Charity have even transferred the ownership of the lands at St. Vincent's to an independent entity which is to lease the new maternity hospital site to the State for 299 years. Unfortunately, critics with fanatical agendas are claiming that a Catholic religious ethos would live on, possibly compromising the hospital's power to carry out different procedures on women. These claims are false and completely inaccurate as the new hospital will have operational and clinical independence to deliver all services that are permitted in the State.
In order to progress the delivery of a new national maternity hospital through the leasing of the site, a final sign off at Government level is now required. Reports indicate that under the proposed lease agreement, the HSE will own the building on a ground lease of 299 years and there will be a change to the board composition. The ongoing delays and foot-dragging by the Government mean that the construction costs for the new hospital have skyrocketed. The project will be funded with public moneys. Conservative estimates put the cost at €1 billion to build and fit out the hospital. Only incompetent public procurement practices would allow a project that started out with an estimated cost of around €200 million to climb fivefold in just a few years.
In all, everyone should satisfy themselves that a number of factors are fully addressed, including several factual positions. Will the State own the hospital? The answer to this question is a clear "Yes". The hospital will be the national State-owned hospital, built and funded by the State. The State will own it on a leasehold basis for the next 299 years. Will the State own the land on which it is built? No. There will, however, be a 299-year lease at a rent of €10 per year. That rent can only be increased if the HSE tries to use the site for purposes other than healthcare. Who will actually run the hospital? The hospital will be run by a charity regulated under charities law and it will be managed by board of trustees. No one will have a controlling interest and nobody will have a beneficial interest, except the Minister for Health who will have a golden share to protect the core values of the hospital. What role will religion play? None whatsoever. The Sisters of Charity have left healthcare in Ireland. Their shareholding in St. Vincent's has been transferred to another charity, not a private company as some allege. It is a charity regulated by law. The constitution of that charity makes no reference whatsoever to religious ethos. Furthermore, at the moment in Holles Street all of the obstetric, neonatal and general gynaecological care permissible within Irish law is available. Will all of that continue under the new hospital? The answer to that question is "Yes". With these questions clearly addressed and answered, it is clear that the project must proceed on from the decision in the publicised minutes. We must respect the views of those who are dissenting but not allow this to derail the building of the maternity hospital. We must accept that the best protections for a truly national maternity hospital are in place.
Members of this House and some commentators have wrongly attacked the Religious Sisters of Charity and have made all kinds of unfounded accusations against the order. A letter published in the Irish Examinerin November last, from Sr. Patricia Lenihan, the superior general with the Religious Sisters of Charity, outlined in the clearest possible terms the role, or otherwise, played by the order. Another letter published in The Irish Timeson 4 May written by the chair of St. Vincent's University Healthcare Group, Mr. James Menton, addressed the outrageous misinformation and disinformation circulating about the St. Vincent's Healthcare Group. The letter also addressed the Religious Sisters of Charity issue. It confirmed that they have left the group and have no further involvement in it. The group is an absolutely secular institution. The contents of these letters paint a very different picture from those being painted by the people who wish to bash the Catholic Church on this issue. That bashing is all about political point-scoring and is nothing more than trying to use the situation for political gain.
It is also worth stating that the Religious Sisters of Charity have consistently called on the Minister for Health to speed up the transfer of the St. Vincent's Healthcare Group to facilitate it as soon as possible. The congregation has continuously insisted that it will have no role in the new national maternity hospital to be constructed on the site. The congregation withdrew its sisters from the board of St. Vincent's Healthcare Group in 2007. In 2020, they gifted 29 acres of land of the site of St. Vincent's Hospital to the State, and 3.2 acres of land to St. Michael's Hospital in Dún Laoghaire. In fact, the sisters have done everything in their power to expedite the transfer to the new independent charity which is St. Vincent's Hospital Holdings, so that the new hospital could progress. The delays to this project are completely due to the other parties involved, including the Minister, failing to take all actions necessary to facilitate the completion of the transfer as soon as possible. The ownership of the St. Vincent's Healthcare Group, which owns the lands, will be transferred to the new independent charity, St. Vincent's Holdings. The Religious Sisters of Charity have said that they now own only one building on the St. Vincent's Hospital site, which is and will continue to be leased to the healthcare group, in order to provide income for their continuing work and for the care of their elderly sisters.
Unfortunately, nuns in Ireland have been stereotyped in Irish public debate to the extent that they have been reduced to the role of villains. Perhaps then it is no coincidence that when the news first emerged that the new national maternity hospital is to be built on a site on the south side of Dublin that is owned by the St. Vincent's Healthcare Group, and for it to be owned by that trust, all hell broke loose simply because the Sisters of Charity own the trust. That trust has a 14-person board and two elderly sisters sit on it. The new maternity hospital will replace the current hospital on Holles Street, which is no longer considered fit for purpose. After tortuous negotiations between Holles Street and the trust, it was agreed that the new maternity hospital would have full independence although the trust, and therefore the sisters, would own it. I cannot understand. We should actually be debating the new children's hospital, including when it will be finished and why it ran over budget, but instead we have spent so much time on something that is quite simply and easily sorted. I put it to the Minister that we must get on with it and go ahead with it. The debating is over. The Sisters of Charity have basically gifted it to the country and we should make use of it.