Disputed National Maternity Hospital site may be leased by State

The Government is considering a long-term lease, with a nominal rent, for the site of the proposed new National Maternity Hospital, writes Juno McEnroe.

Health Minister Simon Harris has said a review of the ownership structures in the health sector, expected to include the role of the Church, is now to be undertaken.

This comes after the news that the Sisters of Charity order of nuns was to be granted ownership of the €300m taxpayer-funded hospital, because the order owns the St Vincent’s Hospital campus on which it is to be built.

Last week, the former master of the Coombe Hospital, Chris Fitzpatrick, stood down from the NMH hospital board and had the support of Peter Boylan, who also resigned last week.

Both resignations were in protest at the plan to allow the religious order to own, and have authority over, the hospital. Prof Fitzpatrick had said he shared the concerns of Dr Boylan about the governance of the proposed hospital.

Furthermore, he said it was critical that there was absolute separation between the Church and medicine, and especially so as regards female reproductive healthcare.

While the Government has called for calm and a month’s breathing space in which to resolve the dispute, Mr Harris last night confirmed that the issue of the ownership of the hospital was now being examined.

Mr Harris yesterday 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.

“The agreement reached between the hospitals recognised that the State will require a lien [a charge on the property] on the new facility, in accordance with whatever funding agreements are in place by the State for such capital projects.

“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.”

Earlier, Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan confirmed that among the options was a long-term lease, by which the State would pay a nominal rent for leasing the land over many years.

Another option would be the gifting of the land to the State by the religious order, but this is fraught with obstacles, Government sources said.

Mr Flanagan confirmed that he believed a compulsory purchase order of the site for the new maternity hospital was a further option, a proposal that Sinn Féin and Labour, among other parties, prefer.

However, this could take years to complete and may also be subject to legal difficulties.

While Prof Declan Keane, the NMH clinical director, supported this route, he also told RTÉ that the original deal between health authorities and the St Vincent’s Hospital Group fully protected the clinical independence of the new hospital. This has also been stressed by Mr Harris.

Mr Harris also confirmed, after it was reported in the Irish Examiner last week, that he wants to conduct a review of the structure of health services. This is expected to be similar to a forum set up in 2011 by former education minister, Ruairi Quinn, into the patronage and role of the Church in schools.

Mr Harris said: “As we’ve seen, through this process and most particularly in recent weeks, the structure of our health service is diverse and complex.

“A conversation has now started in Ireland regarding this. That is a good thing and I want to separately put in place a process to facilitate that broader conversation, which is long overdue and which will, rightfully, take some time.

“This process can be expected to raise a broad range of complex policy issues that will need to be addressed on a general basis within the health service, into the future.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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