The Taoiseach is under a lot of pressure — the kind of pressure that leads to costly mistakes. It perhaps explains why he has been saying things that are not quite true. Micheál Martin is in a tight political corner. From all sides he’s being told he has to get the contract signed for the new National Maternity Hospital.
The hospital saga has dragged on for years and the politicians have had enough. It’s the kind of issue that can cause political trouble, so they want it finished quickly.
On top of that, there’s pressure to replace the old National Maternity Hospital, which is in bad shape. Medics who work there are eager to leave it behind, to move into the new hospital.
It may be that the Taoiseach is just tired of it all and wants to get the matter off his desk.
Taking an opposing position, there are people who don’t want the current contract signed. They say it will leave the new National Maternity Hospital vulnerable to interference by the Catholic Church. They want the State to own the new hospital outright, with no interference from religious elements.
Recently, the Taoiseach has found a clever verbal trick to convince people that the contract drawn up with the nuns is a good one. And, what’s more, he claims it amounts to the State owning the hospital outright.
The Taoiseach points out that the contract gives the State a lease on the new hospital for 299 years, at €10 a year.
“A tenner a year,” he must be chort-ling repeatedly, as though he can’t believe how lucky we are.
It sounds so reasonable. A sensible man who knows a bargain when he sees one, signing up to own a hospital for a tenner.
At that price, over 299 years, he says, the hospital will be “essentially” in public ownership.
What he’s saying is not true.
The rent is not €10 a year. The rent is potentially €850,000 a year if the nuns’ company gets stroppy over conditions. But, in this truly bizarre contract, that really doesn’t matter.
The Taoiseach’s “ownership” claim is nonsense. He appears not to know the difference between ownership and leasing — and the significance in terms of control.
If you own something, you have agency over it; if you merely lease it, you expose yourself to the control of someone else.
At that stage, the detail of the contract becomes crucial. And this contract the Taoiseach is in a hurry to sign has aspects that are quite
startling. They scream a warning.
In answer to this, the Taoiseach’s camp has floated the notion that the contract is opposed by people who are merely fighting a “culture war”, people who are obsessed with fear of the Catholic Church.
So, on one side, we’re told, there’s the sensible Taoiseach with a “hospital for a tenner”. On the other side, some fusspots who have a hang-up about nuns.
Look at the goddamn contract.
Any TD who lets this contract pass — for the sake of party unity or because they accept the Taoiseach’s reading of it — will risk creating a legal monstrosity that will wrap itself around the National Maternity Hospital for hundreds of years.
To be honest, I had assumed that today’s politicians are capable of creating a new National Maternity Hospital utterly independent of religious interests.
It’s not much to ask. Nuns and bishops have a history when it comes to dealing with pregnant women and their babies in this country. It’s not a happy history. So it’s of real, everyday importance that medical practice not be subject to religious dogma.
The HSE put the contract online. The documents are not an easy read.
These are legal documents, written in legal language, one cross-referencing to another. Without legal training it’s impossible to be certain that a paragraph means what it appears to say.
Happily, just as I was about to give up, I read a newsletter, The Gist, from Simon McGarr, a solicitor.
These days, everyone’s got a podcast or a newsletter, and they’re sometimes very informative.
McGarr wasn’t giving a legal opinion on the contract, he just explained its contents, so a layperson might grasp it. A useful thing to do on such a significant issue of public concern.
Perspective: the State will spend a billion on building a new hospital.
It previously gave the hospital — free — to a company formed by nuns, in consultation with the Vatican (tied to conditions the State has not seen).
This church-owned company proposes to lease the building back to the State, to use as a maternity hospital for the next 299 years.
And the contract Micheál Martin wants to sign will govern the power of the nuns and the State in relation to the hospital.
Why didn’t the nuns just sell the land to the State, at market price? The State wanted that, but the nuns refused. Why? Because they want to be the maternity hospital’s landlord.
What an interesting ambition, to be a landlord.
And not to be a landlord of a block of flats, a supermarket or a sports club — no, the nuns want to be landlords of a maternity hospital. Specifically, they’ll co-operate with the State’s ambitions for a new National Maternity Hospital if they get to be the hospital’s landlord.
Here’s a new one on me.
The controversial contract specifies that the State will provide an area of the hospital to be controlled — in perpetuity — by the landlord. A portion of the hospital that will be known as the Landlord Area — where the writ of the nuns will run.
A landlord area?
It’s like renting a flat and you find the landlord shacked up in one of the bedrooms.
Why is this necessary?
Someone suggests it sounds terribly like a hospital within a hospital, but, I’m sure it’s not that crude. And I’m sure you’re sure of that, too.
And now, the hospital for a tenner. There are two rents in the contract — the Taoiseach mentions just one, the tenner. This means paying a total of €2,990 over 299 years.
But if the State, in the view of the nuns, deviates from an undefined notion called “clinical appropriateness”, the rent may instantly jump to €850,000 a year.
And, over 299 years, that’s €254m.
But, it’s not primarily about money, it’s about control.
The huge jump in cost arises if the nuns decide the hospital has done something that’s not “clinically appropriate” — which is still mysteriously undefined.
Suddenly, your landlord gets a pretty big say in your medical treatment.
It’s like you rent a flat and the landlord puts something in the contract about “culinary appropriateness”.
And if you cook an unapproved dish, the landlord gets a say in what you wear.
In short, the hospital may be dragged into court for treatment that the nuns consider “clinically inappropriate”.
How do you think politicians would act? Would they defend the rights of the woman or cringe at the possibility of ending up with a €254m bill?
At that stage, the needs of the woman and the clinical judgment of the medics is effectively subject to the medical opinions of nuns.
Why is any of this necessary?
Do we really need such an intrusive landlord?
We don’t hire musicians to rewire the electrics; we don’t want lumberjacks cutting our hair. But, when they’re landlords, nuns get to have opinions on clinically appropriate treatment for pregnant women.
The contract Michaél Martin wants to sign seems to be an instrument for weakening the State’s authority over the hospital.
Mr Martin’s contract puts the religious in a position where their medical/religious/moral opinion gives them a say in the treatment of women’s health.
On the other hand, of course, perhaps some of us are just fusspots, with a hang-up about nuns.