Saturday 27 May 2017

Future of new national maternity hospital in doubt after 'review' launched over controversy

Simon Harris says he is 'fully committed' to hugely important project

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
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

The future of the new national maternity hospital which is due to be built on the grounds of St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin is in doubt.

The board of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group announced today it is to review its decision to allow the hospital be built on its campus.

It follows days of controversy over the decision to allow the Sisters of Charity, who own St Vincents and the surrounding land, to own the new €300m maternity hospital.

In a statement today the chairman of St Vincents James Menton said: "In view of the controversy and misinformation that has arisen in recent times regarding the project, and the views expressed by the Minister for Health and other members of the Oireachtas, the board of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group will review the status of the project in light of the current situation.”

Minister for Health Simon Harris said tonight he remains fully committed to this hugely important project and long overdue state of the art hospital for the provision of maternity services to women and babies in this country.

“The clinical, operational and financial independence of the new hospital as provided for in the agreement will also be copperfastened in new legal arrangements,” he added.

Critics said the religious order should not be allowed own the hospital. But the master of the national maternity hospital Dr Rhona Mahony said they would have no say in its governance.

She said an agreement had been reached which would see the hospital’s clinical autonomy protected.

St Vincent’s Hospital on Merrion Road, Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers
St Vincent’s Hospital on Merrion Road, Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers

Mr Menton said: ”Pending this review, the Board does not intend to make any further comment.

“On November 21st 2016, following six months of intensive discussions chaired by Mr. Kieran Mulvey (former CEO of the Workplace Relations Commission), St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group and the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) signed a comprehensive agreement.

“It provided for the corporate and clinical governance arrangements for the future operation of a new maternity hospital, called “The National Maternity Hospital at Elm Park DAC”.

 “That agreement was publicly endorsed and welcomed by both the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, and the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, at a press briefing that evening in Government Buildings.

 “In view of the controversy and misinformation that has arisen in recent times regarding the project, and the views expressed by the Minister for Health and other members of the Oireachtas, the board of St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group will review the status of the project in light of the current situation."

Pending this review, the Board said it does not intend to make any further comment.

Responding to this evening’s statement Fianna Fáil Spokesperson on Health Billy Kelleher said:

“I find it extraordinary that after many days of intense speculation and debate it now seems that the agreement reached regarding the new National Maternity Hospital does in fact allow St. Vincent’s to play a role in clinical governance at the hospital. This clearly contradicts previous statements made by Minister for Health Simon Harris on this matter.

“Minister Harris has either misunderstood the deal or deliberately misleads the public on the specific details of this deal. Both scenarios are simply unacceptable and suggest that the Minister is not on top of his brief. While I accept that the new maternity hospital is needed, it cannot be at any cost when it comes to clinical independence and governance."

Mr Kelleher claimed the statement issued on behalf of St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group is "a direct contradiction" to the earlier public statements made by Minister Harris. "Public disquiet will continue to grow in the absence of the full disclosure of the agreement reached," he argued.

“Minister Harris and the Taoiseach need to be honest with the public and explain the truth behind this deal. They cannot have it both ways. They have to explain why they said clinical governance is not a matter for St. Vincent’s when the chairman of the group states that the opposite is the case.”

Here is what you need to know about the controversy:

Who are the Sisters of Charity?

The Sisters of Charity are a congregation of religious women founded in Dublin. They are involved in healthcare, education and also carry out work with asylum seekers and homeless people.

However, they were also one of the organisations included in the Ryan Report, which unveiled a vast amount of systematic institutional abuse going back decades.

They ran some of the notorious Magdalene Laundries workhouses and along with 17 other congregations, were ordered to pay the State €128m towards redress for abuse victims.

However, the Sisters of Charity have yet to fulfil its obligations in this regard.

The order still owes the State another €3m from a commitment it made almost a decade ago in 2009 to pay another €5m towards redress.

Why are they being given ownership of a hospital then?

The new hospital is set to be built on a site at Elm Park in south Dublin - which is owned by the Sisters of Charity.

It will be located on the St Vincent's University Hospital campus and will cater for up to 10,000 births per year.

The Sisters of Charity are the shareholders of the St Vincent's Healthcare Group, which the Department of Health announced would be the "sole owner of the new hospital".

So, are they going to benefit financially from this, despite owing €3m to abuse victims?

According to Health Minister Simon Harris, they won't.

While he said it was "not acceptable" that some orders had yet to pay all they owed to the redress scheme, he said it was wrong to associate the redress issue with a "desperately" needed maternity hospital.

Will they be running the hospital? If so, will that affect certain treatments being carried out?

The nuns will have "no active role" in the running of the hospital, according to Kieran Mulvey, the former chairman of the Workplace Relations Commission, who acted as a mediator to end an impasse over the hospital's future between Holles Street and St Vincent's.

Meanwhile, Master of the National Maternity Hospital, Dr Rhona Mahony, said the hospital would be "independently" run.

There is a ‘triple lock’ in place which will guarantee the autonomy of the National Maternity Hospital, she told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke show.

“Let me be very clear, the nuns will not be running this hospital, it will not be under Catholic ethos. It will be completely independent.

“The ethos will be excellence in clinical care, it will not be a Catholic ethos."

However, questions have been raised about what affect their ownership will have on certain treatments being carried out at the hospital.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, former master of the National Maternity Hospital Peter Boylan said it casts doubt about any future IVF, abortion and gender realignment operations due to it being contrary to the nuns' beliefs.

Earlier, Sister Agnes Reynolds, who sits on the board of the St Vincent's Healthcare Group, told the Irish Times that the new hospital will "always respect the rights of the mother and the baby."

Did we only find out about this now?

Not really, as the feuding over funding and the agreement has been ongoing for a while now.

Independent.ie previously highlighted  the problematic links to the Sisters of Charity in April last year and the agreement between St Vincent's and the National Maternity Hospital was made last November.

It was first mooted in 1998.

How is Minister Harris responding to the backlash?

Not very well.

He has basically said that either this goes ahead, or the new hospital doesn't happen.

Most of his reaction has been given through Twitter. In one tweet, he wrote: "When it comes to our maternity services, I take the views of those responsible for the delivery of infants and the clinical care of women."

The normally talkative young politician has been conspicuous by his absence in the media in recent days.

Dozens of protesters gathered outside the Department of Health on Thursday, calling on the minister to prevent ownership going to nuns.

A nationwide protest is also due to take place outside a number of hospitals on Saturday, including St Vincent's Hospital where the new maternity hospital is due to be built.

Criticism

Many people have spoken out against the decision and criticised the health minister.

Labour Party spokesperson on health, Alan Kelly said: "The fact that the Sisters of Charity have been given sole-ownership of this land when they are party to the €128m redress scheme with the State is ludicrous."

Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall described it as "highly inappropriate".

"Why is the State building a €300m hospital with taxpayers’ money and handing it over to a religious order? It is very hard to see how there could be any rationale for this transaction."

While survivors of the Magdalene Laundries are appalled by the decision.

Mary Murphy (78) spent four years in what she described as "hell on Earth" as a virtual slave in the Stanhope Street laundry run by the Sisters of Charity.

"Religion has no place in Irish hospitals. Just as it had no place in interfering in my life," she said.

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