Minister must deliver on details of agreement for maternity hospital

In some ways, the controversy over the ownership of the new maternity hospital is the most bizarre I’ve ever come across. And the reason is simple. We don’t know enough about it to make a judgement. In fact, we don’t know anything.

Minister must deliver on details of agreement for maternity hospital

We don’t know, for example, what was negotiated between the existing hospitals and the Sisters of Charity. We don’t know what role, if any, the Department of Health played. We don’t even know what emerged from the negotiations.

Is it a contract, an agreement, a memorandum of understanding? What does it cover? Is it a land deal, a property deal, a governance arrangement, or a set of ethical standards? Or some or all of the above? How long is it intended to last — for five years, 10 years, in perpetuity?

The reason we don’t know any of these things is that it hasn’t been published. An alleged agreement, between an alleged number of parties, involving an alleged considerable investment by the State, hasn’t been published. And yet it’s an agreement (or whatever it is) that involves many different aspects of public policy. That is the most bizarre thing of all. This agreement should be capable of being read by anyone concerned with public policy — and indeed by any citizen.

We might discover it’s entirely harmless. But then again, if it’s entirely harmless, you’d imagine it would already be on every relevant website imaginable.

What we do know — and this needs to be said — is that the agreement was negotiated by honourable people, public servants with considerable track records. I’ve heard Dr Rhona Mahony, Kieran Mulvey, and Judge Nicholas Kearns on the radio defending it. They’re all people who deserve to be listened to. I’ve also heard Dr Peter Boylan, the former Master of Holles Street, attacking it. He too deserves to be listened to.

I haven’t heard any representative of the Order, or of the St Vincent’s Trust, on the radio, because, it seems, they have declined to put themselves in a position to answer any questions. They (the trust) apparently issued a statement that said they were going to review the entire arrangement, and this has been widely interpreted as a threat to withdraw whatever they have committed to in the agreement. Why, I wonder, do they feel the need to threaten?

We’ve heard two other voices. Health Minister Simon Harris has gone on record that he’s in the business of seeking further assurances about the independence of the hospital. What’s that about, I wonder? Did he not know what was in the agreement either? Has he read it late in the day and decided it needs to be strengthened? How is it possible, if it is possible, that as bright a minister as Simon Harris would commit hundreds of millions to an agreement, and then decide he’d better seek to have it strengthened?

And the final voice to enter the debate was Bishop Kevin Doran, who pointed out that the Sisters of Charity were, after all, a Catholic order, and would have to obey the rules of the Church in its approach to the governance of the new hospital. In saying this, he was, I guess, speaking nothing but the truth as he saw it. But his remarks only added to the mystery. After days of reassurance that the hospital would operate on the basis of an ethos that owed nothing to any religion, its owners (if they are its owners) are told by a bishop that that isn’t the case at all.

This is crazy, and it gets crazier by the day. If the Dáil is not in uproar this week, demanding to see the agreement on which all this is based, it won’t be doing its job. It is unconscionable, and utterly unacceptable, that a vital matter of public policy, and a huge public investment, should be undertaken on the basis of a secret deal.

There are, of course, other issues of principle involved here. This is Ireland, 2017. We have history. We have learned a lot from that history, or we should have. The Ryan report, published 10 years ago or more, had one thing at its heart, one thing that it found was to blame, essentially, for generations of suffering. That one thing was the excessively deferential, to the point of obsequious, relationship between church and state.

That was what enabled abusive institutions to be run at a profit. It was what enabled impunity, because inspections were so lax and perpetrators were never stopped. It was what ensured that victims would never be believed.

You don’t have to be anti-religious order (and I’m not) to believe that we must never allow that relationship to become unbalanced again. You can readily accept the good that religious have done in Ireland, as well as the truly terrible things they did and were allowed to do (and I accept both) to believe that the Irish State must act only and always in the interests of its people, irrespective of their background, religion, gender or income.

And do you know where the unbalancing starts? Do you know how we begin to fall back into a relationship between Church and State that becomes oppressive and dangerous? With secret deals, that’s where. The minute I hear that the state has entered into an agreement to run anything — where one side takes the benefit and the State takes the risk — and that agreement cannot be published for “reasons of confidentiality”, we must all surely know that we’re in dangerous territory.

And the weirdest thing of all — the reason to be most suspicious — is that this secret deal concerns a maternity hospital, a place in which the future care and protection of pregnant women and girls will be the one and only priority.

The State wouldn’t build a university, or any higher institute of education, and hand it over to a religious order. None of the new general hospitals built in Ireland in the last 20 years have included the religious in their governance. There is no question, and none has arisen, about religious involvement in the new children’s hospital.

So it appears, on the face of it at least, that the only area of public policy and investment in which the separation of Church and state must once again become muddied is in relation to desperately needed modern maternity services.

It’s hard to suspend judgement and to avoid suspicion. I want to hear Mr Harris tell the Dáil this week the agreement underpinning this transaction will be published in full — no redactions, no secret codicils, no bits that “must remain confidential”. Once it’s published, we can all read it, analyse it, and make up our own minds whether the new maternity hospital will be genuinely independent.

But if he won’t publish it, or can’t publish it for any reason, then only one conclusion is possible. If it is to remain secret, then by definition it cannot be an agreement that serves the interests of Irish women. A secret deal, inevitably, will become something that is deeply harmful and corrosively dangerous. We may have to reject it when we see it. We must reject it if we can’t.

None of the new general hospitals built in Ireland in the last 20 years have included the religious in their governance

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