Tuesday, 18 May 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I propose to take Question Nos. 11 to 15, inclusive, together.
As part of ongoing dialogue with churches, faith groups and non-confessional bodies, I met with faith leaders on a number of occasions since my appointment as Taoiseach. The most recent meeting I had took place on 15 April last when I met with the leaders of the all-island Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church and the Irish Council of Churches. We discussed the ongoing contribution to peacebuilding and the work the churches undertake on an ongoing and daily basis at community level in Northern Ireland.
We had a very constructive discussion on Northern Ireland, which included a shared and grave concern at recent incidents of violence on the streets. We agreed that the causes of the recent violence are complex, but it is essential that calm, measured and positive leadership be exercised at every level, political, civic and community, for all the people of Northern Ireland. We also discussed the complexities and sensitivities around the consequences of Brexit and the commitment to uphold the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. The church leaders and I recognised the 1921 centenaries as profoundly important and sensitive moments in engaging with the shared history of these islands and agreed it will be important to promote a sensitive, inclusive and respectful approach in the marking of those centenaries still to come.
I welcomed the church leaders' St. Patrick's Day message reflecting on the centenary of partition and of the formation of Northern Ireland, which highlighted the valuable opportunity they provide to recognise different perspectives on our history in a way that explores what can be learned for today and contributes to reconciliation and healing on the island. I briefed the church leaders on the Government's shared island initiative. The church leaders and I recognised the importance of dialogue, engagement and respect for all communities and traditions on these islands. The church leaders and I agreed the pandemic has posed challenges for all our citizens in terms of mental health and well-being, recognised the importance of faith to the spiritual and mental well-being of many people and communities and looked forward to the time when church services and other in-person activities could resume.
The main issue I wish to raise is the new national maternity hospital. There remain serious concerns regarding ownership and control of the proposed new hospital. Unless this hospital is built on State-owned land, religious ethos will continually hinder the healthcare received by the women who use it. As long as there is continued ambiguity about the control and operation of the hospital because of who owns the site, it casts a cloud over the hospital and there will be a concern about the independence of the procedures carried out there. Dr. Peter Boylan has articulated these issues numerous times, including to me directly. We need this hospital urgently and we need to get it right. We do not need to make mistakes.
I have three questions on the matter. Is the Government prepared to provide a guarantee as to the future ownership and operation of this hospital? Would the Government be willing to take time to put in place the appropriate legal arrangement to ensure the land is owned by and not leased to the State and is operated by the HSE through a board of directors appointed by the Government and public, rather than by any hospital group? Will the Taoiseach commit to forming an Oireachtas committee solely to address these questions and, if necessary, grey areas and concerns relating to the hospital's development and governance, or else instruct a committee to do so?
There is a little confusion. I just came in. Questions Nos. 1 to 4 and Nos. 5 to 10 have been dealt with. We are moving on to Nos. 11 to 15 and Deputy Kelly does not feature in those questions. I am not sure where the confusion lies but I want to get it straight. The Taoiseach ranked Nos. 11 to 15 together, is that right?
That is fine. He is just not on the list. We are on Nos. 11 to 15. Deputy Kelly has spoken.
Let me read out what I have before me. We are on Questions Nos. 11 to 15. It is Deputies McDonald, Paul Murphy, Boyd Barrett, Catherine Murphy and Barry.
Go raibh maith agat. The question of the national maternity hospital is hugely important to women in this country. If men could get pregnant, it might have been answered by now, but it certainly has not been answered. On 25 May, it will be three years since people voted overwhelmingly - more than two thirds - to allow women make a choice on the question on termination of pregnancy in their own country, once and for all. The legislation that came in after that allows for limited access to abortion.
On the question of the national maternity hospital, I will quote Archbishop Eamon Martin and ask the Taoiseach for clarity on the statement, because he was recently speaking to the church leaders. He said “the carrying out of abortions or morally illicit medical procedures at the [national maternity hospital] would be repugnant” to Catholic teaching and “regardless of the eventual outcome of the proposed transfer, the church will remain clear in its public statements that there is no place in a maternity hospital for abortion[s].” If that is a statement of the church leader, where does the Taoiseach stand? What was the point in the long campaign over many decades to repeal the eighth amendment, successfully have a referendum and implement legislation? Now we will build a national maternity hospital with church ethos still intact that does not allow for abortion or other reproductive services, in-vitrofertilisation, IVF, treatment, transgender treatment etc. Will the Taoiseach clarify what will happen and when?
In answers to me, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has said the operating licence to run the national maternity hospital would be issued to St. Vincent's Healthcare Group, a company whose statutes pledge it to uphold Catholic values and vision. In this day and age, we should not hand any more hospitals over to the church, especially our national maternity hospital. Nowhere in the world do Catholic-controlled hospitals provide contraception or perform IVF, surgical sterilisations or abortions.
On top of that, the Minister said there would be private outpatient clinics in this new public hospital and one in six of the consulting rooms would be private. He said the details of this deal will not be put before the Oireachtas before it is agreed at Cabinet. It is not good enough. The public needs to know what is being done and whether the result of the repeal referendum almost three years ago will be undermined by a secret deal with the nuns' companies. Will the Taoiseach at the very least give a guarantee that the contracts to run this hospital will be put before this House for scrutiny and approval?
The legal framework to protect the State's investment and ensure the national maternity hospital remains in State ownership has still not been completed. Eighteen months ago, the Tánaiste told us the details of this transfer would be finalised in a matter of weeks. Yet significant questions remain unanswered in terms of the make-up and mission of the new hospital. None of this has been satisfactorily addressed, as colleagues have said. The Religious Sisters of Charity received conditional permission from the Holy See to transfer their shareholding to the new company established to facilitate the provision of health services. The conditional permission cites Canon Law, which is astonishing and totally inappropriate. It has previously been reported that the Vatican initially opposed the Religious Sisters of Charity's decision to transfer their interest to the new company and the former Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, played a critical role in securing the conditional permission. Has the Taoiseach discussed this matter with the new Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Dermot Farrell, or raised the omission of a public interest director from the board of the new company? What effort has been made to ensure the new maternity hospital will be absolutely free from religious influence?
Deputy Kelly raised the issue of the national maternity hospital, as have all the Deputies who spoke subsequently. Religious ethos will not influence the policy or activities of the hospital. I supported the repeal of the eighth amendment and the national maternity hospital will not be in any shape or form influenced by any religion. I have not discussed it with any bishop or archbishop. I do not think it is appropriate. Nor did they seek to discuss it with me at any stage.
This Government is ten months old but this project has dragged on for years. The existing situation in terms of women's health in the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, is not what it should be. We cannot continue indefinitely in the existing location, in terms of modern maternity and health care for women. We need a new facility.
Even if it was cleared in the morning, we are still looking at some years before a new facility would be constructed. We need to keep that in mind as we continue to debate this issue because it seems to me that over the past five to six years it has been exhaustively engaged in by a variety of contributors. There is a necessity, an imperative, to get this modern facility in place. The decision to move to the St. Vincent's campus in the first instance was a clinical medical one in order to have a maternity hospital adjacent to a tertiary hospital for the betterment of women and newborns, to allow for health interventions that might be urgently required. The most successful example of that is CUH where the maternity hospital is on site. I was Minister for Health when that maternity hospital was constructed on the grounds of the hospital, and we have not had a similar example built since. That was in the 2000s. We do need to get on with it.
I fully accept the points that have been made about the independence of the new hospital and that all State policies would be followed through without question in the policy of the hospital and the operational working of the hospital. That is something that I would not just be very keen on, but insistent on. I will revert to the Minister for Health on the issues people have raised with a view first to conveying their views but also seeking to get a resolution once and for all because the current situation is not at all optimal in terms of women’s health. We need this new facility as quickly as possible.
I am not in favour of a special Oireachtas committee because I do not think we need one on a hospital. It would create a precedent and I am not sure of the value of that. We have a health committee and it would seem to me that the Minister coming before the committee would be the proper forum for discussing and teasing out these issues.
The issues raised by Deputy McDonald concerning the Sisters of Charity getting permission to divest of the land relate to previous years. That worked itself out. As far as I am concerned, this needs to be a State-owned and operated hospital. It will be, and State policy will be the dominant and only feature of this particular hospital.
As I said, this has gone on for quite a long time. Covid has dominated, but when we get full clarity around that, we will revert to the House on it. The Oireachtas health committee is an appropriate forum for the ins and outs of this project to be debated. We need to get a new national maternity hospital built.
The Rotunda is to follow. I have always found it extraordinary the length of time it has taken to argue these issues out and get them resolved given the State investment in all of these sites.