Name of the game should be dignity

St Vincent’s University Hospital CEO Kay Connolly, Minister for Health Simon Harris, and the outgoing master of the National Maternity Hospital, Rhona Mahony, with a model of St Vincent’s and the proposed new building.

It’s one thing for a sporting body... to flog naming rights, but not a children’s hospital, not something that is a totem of values, writes Michael Clifford

DOES it matter if a facility that expresses the core values and priorities of this State is named in honour of somebody who has simply made a lot of money? Is the acquisition of wealth, by whatever means, sufficient reason to be honoured as a standard bearer for what’s most important in life?

In the week before Christmas, Minister for Health Simon Harris brought a memo to Cabinet suggesting that naming rights to the new National Children’s Hospital could be sold to donors. The reasoning behind such a desperate proposal was that the cost for the hospital has gone through the roof.

In 2012, it was estimated that the facility should cost €404m. By 2017, this had risen to €1.1bn. Then, late last year, the projected cost was coming in at between €1.4bn and €1.7bn. Some estimates now have it that the National Children’s Hospital will be the most expensive of its kind in the world.

Before examining whether we should honour great patriots by association with a children’s hospital, let’s look at why anybody would want to resort to such measures.

On March 7, 2017, Mr Harris put rising costs down to inflation in the construction industry, which had risen from 3% to 9% in three years, and the omission of some things in the initial estimates.

“The core construction costs, at that time [2014], did not include other services we are providing, including commercial spaces, higher education facilities, the Children’s Research and Innovation Centre, and equipment,” he said.

Equipment? Somebody forgot that a children’s hospital would need equipment?

As for the rest of the stuff, it’s a bit like pricing the construction of a semi-d house without including the cost of a front and back garden, a driveway, and maybe a bit of the plumbing.

What professionals got the sums wrong? Who in the HSE or Department of Health was keeping an eye on this? What did the minister know and when did he know about the ballooning costs?

In grown-up project management, an overriding priority is that there are no surprises on costs. What we have here is a major shock, rather than just a surprise, and nobody but our old friend Mr Systems Failure is responsible. One thing is sure: It wouldn’t be tolerated in the private sector. Different standards, however, apply when the citizens are footing the bill.

Naming rights are another issue. The original name was Phoenix, which was grand, except there was already a children’s hospital in Arizona with that name. Prior to the launch of the ‘naming ceremony’ for the Irish hospital, the people in Arizona attempted to make contact to warn not to proceed with that name, according to documents published by thejournal.ie last year. But nobody was checking their emails, apparently. The now-defunct naming project ended with another €40,000 down the drain.

As things stand, the hospital doesn’t have a name beyond what is probably the most appropriate: The National Children’s Hospital. Is it really necessary to succumb to modern marketing waffle by providing the facility with a ‘brand’?

The only proper rationale for doing so would be if it made the hospital more inviting for the people who will be treated there.

Meanwhile, the solution for the most profligate project in train at the moment is to flog naming rights to individuals or companies.

I’m sure there are companies that would look on this as an excellent opportunity for positive publicity. But how appropriate is that? Should there be, in the public mind, a subliminal association between the care of children and a company whose principal value is increasing the bottom line?

It’s one thing for a sporting body, such as the FAI or the IRFU, to flog naming rights to a financial outfit such as Aviva. That’s their business. But not a children’s hospital, not something that is designed to be held up as a totem of values in this society.

Then, we have individuals who might want the honour. The minister is proposing we go cap in hand to somebody who may be Mother Teresa in a bespoke suit, or perhaps a fast-buck merchant, or maybe a tax exile, or even a tycoon whom a statutory inquiry has found to be less than honest.

As there are companies that would jump at the chance to occupy a comfy corner of the national psyche, so, too, there are individuals who would, and who could blame them?

But who among them would be really appropriate? We name bridges and assorted infrastructure after people who are believed to have made a contribution to the State through how they lived. Yet our government appears willing to bestow the same honour on people simply because they can afford it.

What about the children? What say should they have on the names associated with a place where the most vulnerable of them seek help?

In another time, they had no say. For instance, Our Lady’s Children Hospital in Crumlin has wards named after the town of Nazareth and saints such as Joseph. That was for a time when the Church’s brand was in a place that would make Apple and Google purple with envy.

In more modern times, due consideration has been given to the patients. The children’s wards in Cork University Hospital have names such as Puffin, Ladybird, and Seahorse. These are the kind of places a sick child can at least imagine are somewhere less foreboding.

And now the thinking is that the children can kick back and imagine that, one day, they, too, might have as much money as the man or woman whom the ward is named after.

There is nothing wrong, and plenty right, with philanthropy. In the USA — cited by Mr Harris as a location where hospitals are named after benefactors — philanthropy is used to plug major holes when the state fails to take care of its citizens.

That happens here, too, but nowhere to the same extent. We have much in common with the USA, but, thankfully, we don’t have the same values when it comes to catering for the most vulnerable.

If wealthy individuals want to donate to the children’s hospital project, especially from the tax exile lairs, then the money should be gratefully received.

But it would be no harm if it was done quietly, with no quid pro quo, implied or otherwise. The lack of care, oversight, or attention to detail, in terms of the ballooning costs of the project, has been shocking. It says plenty about the negative aspects of how the State is run. But running with cap in hand, holding out national values, to a moneyed individual, should not be the answer.

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