Harris considers leasing maternity hospital land in U-turn on controversy
Health Minister Simon Harris has said the issue of ownership of the planned National Maternity Hospital must be addressed as the debacle continues to jeopardise the €300m project.
In a significant shift in stance, the Government is now considering the option of a long-term lease agreement to circumvent current legal prohibitions on the Order of the Sisters of Charity selling or gifting the hospital to the State.
One source last night likened the lease option, which could run beyond 900 years, to the agreement surrounding the ownership of the Guinness storehouse in Dublin.
The minister is also understood to be preparing proposals for Cabinet which are designed to tackle the issue of ownership of other hospitals aside from St Vincent's.
"We may need to go down the same kind of route as we did with schools," a source told the Irish Independent.
Government ministers are becoming increasingly concerned over the bitter dispute surrounding the use of St Vincent's campus for the new maternity facility. Last week, the former master of the Coombe Hospital, Professor Chris Fitzpatrick, stepped down from the NMH project board.
His resignation took place 24 hours after Dr Peter Boylan also quit the board. Dr Boylan accused the board of being "blind" to the consequences of relocating from Holles Street to St Vincent's.
But in a bid to defuse the row, Mr Harris last night said he believed there was the potential to devise "acceptable solutions" in relation to the contentious issue of ownership.
"This week, I asked for a period of time to allow me and my officials to work with both hospitals and report back to the Government, the Oireachtas and to the public at the end of May," Mr Harris said.
"I want to be very clear that I want this time to pursue solutions that address the issue of the ownership of the facility, that is the new NMH."
Mr Harris said that the agreement reached between the hospitals "recognised that the State will require a 'lien' on the new facility in accordance with whatever funding agreements are in place by the State for such capital projects".
A 'lien' in this instance acts as a stop on the nuns selling the hospital site at Elm Park to another buyer without the State's approval.
"Different options have been used in the past in doing this and I believe there is potential to devise creative and acceptable solutions that will provide further reassurance regarding the ownership of these facilities which will be paid for by the State," Mr Harris said.
In relation to the ownership options, the prospect of a 900-year lease will be examined.
While Opposition TDs have called for the State to initiate a compulsory purchase order, sources said that this could result in a legal challenge.
"The sisters are not going to simply sit back and allow the State to swoop in and take the land," said a well-placed source.
Speaking on RTÉ's 'The Week in Politics' yesterday, Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan acknowledged that the issue of the ownership of the NMH has caused considerable public concern. "I acknowledge the element of public concern and I also acknowledge that there is an urgency regarding this hospital," he said.
Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald called on the religious order to gift the land to the State.
"I also happen to think that the sisters, out of a sense of commitment to the public and out of a sense of understanding of their own history and the bad relationship that they had with so many mothers and their babies, that they might actually do the right thing," she said.