Plans for gifting of the National Maternity Hospital to a Vatican-approved company sparks backlash
The decision has been delayed for two weeks, during which time government ministers aim to alleviate concerns from both the opposition and the Irish public.
Earlier this week, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly brought a memo to the cabinet proposing that the State lease the site for the new €1 billion National Maternity Hospital at just €10 per year for 299 years from a Vatican-approved company.
The company in question – the recently established St Vincent’s Holdings CLG – is a non-profit group with charitable status. The site for the new hospital was previously owned by the Religious Sisters of Charity, and the transfer of their shareholdings to this new company required approval from the Vatican.
Essentially, the Department of Health wants the location of the National Maternity Hospital moved from its current Holles Street site in Dublin 2 to Saint Vincent’s Campus in Dublin 4 so that it can be adjacent to the already established treatment facility, thus boosting medical outcomes.
The site itself is valued at €200 million, and the gifting of this property to the State comes with the proviso that the religious order will retain ownership of all but the building’s shell. The new hospital board will be made up of three independent directors selected by the minister, three nominated by St Vincent’s, and three nominated by the National Maternity Hospital.
Instead of signing off on the proposal in cabinet this past Tuesday, opposition leaders and senior ministers have called for further consideration due to valid concerns regarding the governance and potential impact of a religious ethos in the provision of essential services.
Considering Ireland’s fractured history with the Catholic church – in particular its treatment of women and children – plans for a religious charity to take ownership of the country’s foremost maternity hospital have received severe backlash.
While Stephen Donnelly has stated that the new National Maternity Hospital would be completely independent and that all legally permissible services will be provided “where clinically appropriate”, there is a demand for further clarity around what can be deemed “clinically appropriate” and who decides.
Traditionally, other Catholic institutions or those even loosely connected to the church do not provide reproductive services such as abortion, contraception and IVF. Fostering an increasingly polarising debate, arguments that this represents a regressive and worrying step backwards reflect the severe lack of trust and transparency between the Irish government and its people.
Legitimate concerns have prompted a two week delay, during which ministers will address all aspects of the proposal and all legal documents relating to the deal will be published. The Oireachtas Committee on Health is set to hold an extra meeting next week to allow for debate and a greater insight into whether there were particular stipulations under which the Vatican agreed to transfer the land.
The Religious Sisters of Charity was involved in running Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, and was the last of the four orders to close the doors of these institutions. While the new National Maternity Hospital is essential in the provision of modern healthcare, it will need to be clear that no religious ethos is practised within its walls, and that the State holds complete ownership and governance before the deal can be signed off on.