Thursday 27 April 2017

Simon Harris accused of 'hypocrisy' for backing Sisters given previous stance

Simon Harris with a model of the new maternity hospital (left), and the Sisters of Charity
Simon Harris with a model of the new maternity hospital (left), and the Sisters of Charity
A general view of protesters opposed to the Sisters of Charity owning the new national maternity hospital gather outside the Department of Health, Poolbeg St, Dublin. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Health Minister Simon Harris has been accused of "practising hypocrisy" over his stance on the Sisters of Charity's controversial ownership of the long-awaited National Maternity Hospital.

The charge came as Mr Harris insisted the religious order would not gain financially or have any say over medical procedures or treatment at the new hospital. In an official statement, the minister said it was "not true" to say that the "nuns will be running the hospital".

However, fresh questions have been raised over the minister's position on the religious order after it emerged that he previously attacked financial arrangements linked to the charity.

Three years ago, Mr Harris lambasted the St Vincent's Care Group, which is owned by the under-fire religious order, for using a public hospital as collateral for bank loans to build a private car park and health facility.

The loans meant the banks had first call over assets linked to St Vincent's public hospital.

Read more: 'The State's interests will be protected and no religious order will gain financially' - Minister Harris breaks silence on maternity hospital row

A protester opposed to the Sisters of Charity owning the new national maternity hospital, outside the Department of Health on Poolbeg St, Dublin. Photo: Caroline Quinn
A protester opposed to the Sisters of Charity owning the new national maternity hospital, outside the Department of Health on Poolbeg St, Dublin. Photo: Caroline Quinn

At the time, Mr Harris, who was a member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said he was "appalled" by the revelation. However, the minister is now being forced to defend his decision to allow the charity to have ownership of the new €300m maternity hospital.

Yesterday, Labour Party health spokesman Alan Kelly said the minister seemed to have forgotten the "gross misuse" of a State funding by the religious order, which he previously raised.

"Mr Harris knew of this gross misuse of a public hospital and was scandalised at the time, yet here we are three short years later with Mr Harris being very vocal in his defence of the Sisters of Charity having ownership of a new State hospital," Mr Kelly told the Irish Independent.

"He was outraged at its behaviour three years ago, it's time he was again and acted accordingly, otherwise he is practising hypocrisy."

However, last night Mr Harris hit back, insisting Mr Kelly was making a "political charge".

"Deputy Kelly is entirely correct - as a member of PAC I was very robust in my defence that the taxpayers' interest must always be protected and that's why before one cent is spent on construction of the maternity hospital a contractual arrangement will be put in place to protect the State's investment and interest," he told the Irish Independent.

In his statement, the minister said there would be "no financial gain" to any religious order from the development of this hospital.

"Legal arrangements will be put in place which will 100pc protect the State's investment and interest in the new hospital," he added.

He said redress owed to the State by the nuns was "extremely important" but said it was wrong to "conflate" it with the construction of the new hospital. Mr Harris said the charity should "cough up" the money it owes to the victims of abuse by the religious order.

The controversy over the ownership of the new maternity hospital has resulted in more than 65,000 people signing a petition urging the minster to reverse the decision.

Read more: National maternity hospital explainer: The nuns, the €300m in taxpayer's money, and the suddenly-quiet health minister

The agreement was arranged after protracted negotiations between St Vincent's and Holles Street Hospital over the site for the maternity hospital. The final deal was reached between the two hospitals following talks chaired by former chairman of the Workplace Relations Commission Kieran Mulvey.

Former health minister James Reilly, who kick-started the national maternity hospital project while in office, yesterday said it was a "good deal for the State".

"I fully understand the predicament of those who were abused by the Church but it is a good deal for the State and why would we want to jeopardise the health of our children in the future while focusing on the past?" Mr Reilly said.

Irish Independent

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