Separation of Irish health service from church 'could take years'

Simon Harris is examining ownership of the National Maternity Hospital

Separation of Irish health service from church 'could take years'

St Vincent's Hospital campus in Dublin | Image:

It could take years not months for the full evolution of health services in Ireland from church to State.

Health Minister Simon Harris says he has heard 'very clearly' the public concern over the ownership issue of the the new National Maternity Hospital, and will report back by the end of May.

Minister Harris says he will now focus on the part of the agreement which allows the State to take a lien over the facility.

He also welcomed the fact that it has opened up a wider conversation about religious control of our hospitals.

"After many years of failed attempts, I was delighted when, late last year, the two voluntary hospitals involved agreed to work together to make this happen and to ensure co-location between maternity and acute adult services," the statement read.

"I remain grateful to them and to Kieran Mulvey for their tireless work in coming to an agreement ensuring absolute clinical independence. I have also welcomed the statement by the Board of the St. Vincent's Healthcare Group earlier this week which reaffirmed this clinical independence.

"The agreement also has robust measures to protect the State's investment, in line with well established practice, and a new role for the Health Minister of the day in terms of a 'golden share' - something which in my view is an improvement on the current reality in maternity services."

'Simon Harris is beginning a process'

His statement comes as debate continues, with political and medical experts both for and against the deal to hand ownership of the new facility to the Sisters of Charity.

Harry McGee, political correspondent with the Irish Times, told the Pat Kenny Show we need to remember that many of our Church led institutions were set up at a time when the State had no resources to provide public healthcare.

He told host Jonathan Healy unraveling that connection will take time.

"The ownership issue has become important - I don't think it's going to make any difference in terms of governance or in terms of how the National Maternity Hospital at the St Vincent's facility will be operated."

"I think the debate is a wider philosophical one about a relationship between church and State - and (Simon) Harris in his statement last night was very insistent that he doesn't want that wider debate to be any bar on this hospital and this new building proceeding as quickly as possible".

"Most of our hospitals were founded by religious orders: if you look at all the major hospitals - the Mater in Dublin, the Mercy Hospital in Cork[...]These hospitals and facilities were founded at a time when the State played no part in it - and they were set up to fulfil a need.

"A woman called Mary Aiken had set up, what became St Vincent's, by taking the poor off the street in Dublin and giving them aid...when the State hadn't sufficient resources to do so".

"I think what Simon Harris is beginning is a process, I think that process will happen but I think it will happen not over a period of months - it will happen over a period of many months and many years".

Additional reporting: Jack Quann