Thursday 17 October 2019

Comment: My instinct is to trust Rhona Mahony on the new Maternity Hospital

People protest at plans to grant the Sisters of Charity ownership of the hospital. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
People protest at plans to grant the Sisters of Charity ownership of the hospital. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Catherine O'Mahony

Catherine O'Mahony

Feelings are running high - that's for sure. Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition to block the state from granting sole ownership of the proposed National Maternity Hospital to the Sisters of Charity, the order that owns the St Vincent's Hospital site in Dublin's Ballsbridge where the new hospital is set to land.

So vehement is the opposition that the board of St Vincent's Healthcare Group yesterday said it was reviewing the status of the whole project.

Calls are being made for a clear divide between church and state on matters regarding health. Questions are being asked as to why any religious order should take ownership of the state-funded hospital, much less a maternity hospital where procedures sometimes need to take place that run counter to Catholic teachings.

Survivors of abuse at Magdalene Laundries are justifiably outraged because the Sisters of Charity have so far paid out only €2m of the €5m they are due to pay in redress.

There can be no excuse for this order not to pay its due. If the state can exert influence in this regard, it must.

However, I am not sure if any direct connection can be drawn between this obligation and the hospital deal in question.

And as to the role played by religious orders in the healthcare system? Well, this is also a very valid concern but it's hard to argue with historical fact here: the Sisters of Charity owns the Vincent's site and it owns Vincent's Hospital as a whole and there you have it. The board of Vincent's includes two nuns. This is a fact.

Read More: Hospital plan now in doubt as row over ownership deepens

Should the state have tried to buy the land at Vincent's rather than simply occupying it? Well I think yes it probably should have. But it did not and - as appears to have been largely forgotten now - the nature of this controversial deal was hashed out a full year ago in the media as well as the boardroom. The deal was agreed last autumn. And now here we are.

There's no doubt that it's a bit worrying when people like Peter Boylan, a former master of Holles Street, express concern about undue religious influence on the new hospital, but perhaps his is not the only voice that deserves to be heard here.

There is one thing that should not be forgotten in all of this - we need a new maternity hospital. Women deserve nothing less.

Anyone who has ever attended Holles Street - and it's been nearly 15 years since I last did so - will testify to the place being utterly unfit for purpose. It's like an old boarding school, leaking and creaking in precisely the manner you would expect a building of its age to be (it dates back to 1894). The term Dickensian is almost flattering, especially if you don't manage to secure a private bed.

Moreover it is terribly over-crowded - I recuperated from giving birth there with eight other women in a public ward, in a bed less than a foot from a large bin. Keen to have a shower the day after my Caesarean, I slipped on what I believe was someone else's blood in the bathroom and had to be rescued from the floor. Yes the nurses were kind and yes the medical staff seemed perfectly competent. But did it feel like a safe place for a newborn and a person recovering from surgery? It did not.

Rhona Mahony, the Master of Holles Street, knows all of this all too well.

She knows exactly how important it is that Irish women and their infants get decent first-world care at this highly vulnerable time in their lives.

And a brand new hospital - where every woman gets her own room and where there is immediate access to a full service hospital - will give them that.

If Mahony has niggling doubts about the deal agreed, she wasn't showing any of them when she spoke to RTÉ's Sean O'Rourke last week.

Instead she said a triple lock had been agreed to protect the independence of the hospital management at the Vincent's site. She said the nuns would not be running the hospital which she said would be "completely independent". She said all the services currently provided in Holles Street would be provided in the new facility.

Personally I still want to know exactly what the state has agreed with the Sisters of Charity and what a "triple lock" (which sounds good) truly means. I believe the public deserves full clarity on the precise terms of the deal that will result in a hospital taxpayers are paying for.

This may of course all be overridden should St Vincent's change its mind.

But if the project proceeds I am inclined to trust that Rhona Mahony and her team of medics - backed by their triple lock - will put the interests of women and their babies ahead of the interests of an owner with a Catholic ethos.

Because, faced with the choice of entrusting Irish women's care in pregnancy to a dangerous looking crumbly old hospital, or to a shiny new one over which there are some unproven - and emphatically denied - concerns about ethos, I would tend to give the NMH team the benefit of the doubt.

Irish Independent

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