Transfer of Ownership of the National Maternity Hospital from Sisters of Charity to St. Vincents Changes Nothing

There was what might have seemed like a dramatic development in the controversy surrounding the proposed new ownership of the National Maternity Hospital. But if all that is involved is shifting ownership from one religious interest group to another, then the issue remains as fraught as ever. By Niall Stokes

What are we to make of the news that the Sisters of Charity will no longer have an involvement in the new National Maternity Hospital planned for the campus at St. Vincent’s Hospital, as announced this morning? And that a new company with the name St. Vincent will now be the owners of the new hospital?

I don’t mean to be a spoilsport, but my first reaction is that it is a classic fudge. Taking the nuns out of the equation, it seems to me, is an attempt to distract from the wider issues of ownership and ethos.

Unless there are other provisions that have yet to be revealed, the truth is that the creation of a new entity called St. Vincents to take over where the nuns will be leaving off, really doesn’t make a blind bit of difference.

POTENTIAL FOR RELIGIOUS INFLUENCE

Despite what the bishops, the clergy or pro-Catholic Church individuals might argue, opposition to the proposed structure under which the new National Maternity Hospital would be owned and run was never about an anti-nun witch-hunt.

It is true that there was something particularly offensive about the announcement that the Sisters of Charity, who ran so called Mother and Baby homes in which women (and their children) were effectively incarcerated and abused, would be the owners of the National Maternity Hospital, in or around the time that the full, horrific details about what happened at the Mother and Baby home, run by the Bon Secours Sisters in Tuam, were emerging. But that was never – and should not be seen as – the nub of the issue.

The State is about to invest €300 million of citizens’ money in a new National Maternity Hospital. In fact, as we know from experience with infra-structural projects of this nature in Ireland, the likelihood is that the bill will rise significantly – time will tell, of course, but you could reasonably say, right now, that €400 million is a more realistic estimate of the likely final cost.

Against that backdrop, the most fundamental question raised by the plan put forward by the Board of the National Maternity Hospital is this: why should the State invest this kind of money in any project, and not establish ownership?

This is a particularly vital issue, where the ownership of the National Maternity Hospital is concerned. In the past, Governments may have been willing to allow religious institutions to provide health-related services, in return for having the opportunity to influence people in the context of fundamental life issues like birth, death and serious illness.

That was the trade-off. And for the religious orders, it made ideological and probably commercial sense: if close to 95% of the country remained Roman Catholic (as was presumed at the moment of peak Catholicism), how much bigger would the take at Sunday morning mass all over the country be? How much greater the level of bequests in wills? And so on...

In health, as in education, what they wanted more than anything else was the opportunity to work the turf, establish their position and stay in control. And for a long time the policy succeeded.

But that is a contract that the vast majority of Irish people no longer want entered into on their behalf. If religious orders, or companies associated with religious orders, want to provide private health care, then that is their prerogative. They are perfectly entitled to do so, as long as they are not afforded any competitive advantage over private operators, in building and running hospitals, through the use of charitable trusts. But the provision of public health care is the responsibility of the State, and there is no basis for diluting either that responsibility, or the rights associated with it, by joining hands with religious vested interests of one kind or another.

This applies equally to the company which will be called St. Vincent – and which will have charitable status – as it does to the Sisters of Charity.

There is nothing anti-Catholic in this view. It would be equally misguided of the State to agree to build the National Maternity Hospital on land adjacent to the mosque in Clonskeagh and to give ownership, and half of the seats on the board, more or less, to local members of the Muslim community. Needless to say, no one in the Department of Health would even dream of it.

The fundamental principles remain the same. All of the questions that were asked in relation to the potential for religious influence, with the Sisters of Charity involved, remain as relevant if 'St. Vincent' becomes the owner of the building; and particularly if the company is given representation on the board of the National Maternity Hospital in the way that was originally envisaged for the St.Vincent Trust.

SECTARIANISM IS UNACCEPTABLE

Which is why, unless there is something crucial which I am missing, this 'solution’ has all the hallmarks of political jiggery pokery – of creating an impression that something fundamental is being changed when in fact all we are seeing is the expediting of a process that was inevitable anyway. Given that the number of nuns in the Sisters of Charity has been dwindling steadily, the transfer of assets from their ownership to a similarly religiously-motivated lay entity was going to happen sooner or later. But redecorating the carriages doesn’t change the direction in which that train was – and still is – heading.

Under no circumstances should the completely independent running of the National Maternity Hospital, and the freedom of the doctors and nurses who work there, to carry out whatever procedures are allowed under the law in Ireland, either now or in the future, be compromised even one whit by any religious ethos.

Furthermore, while we are on the subject, there is no basis whatsoever for allowing the small details of religious influence to get a foothold either in the hospital or in the surrounding area. In a Republic, which guarantees religious freedom, citizens of any faith and none are entitled to go to the National Maternity Hospital and to have their children born into the world, in an atmosphere that is completely devoid of sectarianism of any kind – Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, Hindu or otherwise.

And make no mistake about it: what we are talking about here is sectarianism – and its potential institutionalisation in the new structures under which the National Maternity Hospital will operate.

Any hint of sectarianism is completely unacceptable in the running of the National Maternity Hospital. Or to turn it around, the Department of Health, the HSE and the National Maternity Hospital should have nothing whatsoever to do with sectarianism.

Which is why the Hot Press view is that, no matter what the Master of the National Maternity Hospital, Rhona Mahony (pictured) thinks, the Minister for Health cannot – and should not – accept this as a solution to the issues that were raised in relation to this vital national asset. The National Maternity Hospital must be completely independent of any religious ethos, and memos of understanding and “golden shares” simply do not cut it when it comes to establishing that, beyond question.

This is an opportunity for the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, to demonstrate what he is made of. This is a clash that he can win. The ball is in his court.

 

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