Controversy over the new National Maternity Hospital continues to dominate the political agenda – with the Government continuing to insist its clinical independence is legally assured.
The Government had hoped to sign off on the deal at next Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting; however, the Oireachtas Health Committee is now due to ask for a further delay.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly spent the afternoon answering questions on the deal before the committee, which is now seeking further time to question stakeholders and other witnesses on issue.
Critics of the deal continue to express concerns over the ownership of the land and the long-term independence of the facility.
On The Hard Shoulder this evening, Solicitor Alice Murphy, Legal Advisor to the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street moved to alleviate some of those concerns.
Will the State own the land the new hospital is being built on?
“The legal structure provides that Vincent’s is giving 299 years of ownership over to the HSE,” she said.
“That’s why you have heard people say well actually, functionally it is in State ownership. It is going to be owned for 299 years by the HSE.
“Some people are concerned that 299 years is not long enough or that the terms and conditions are not good enough or that there might be a way to charge rent or make life difficult for the State.
“What I can say on that is, I am very satisfied with the legal documents and terms of the lease. It is a long lease of 299 years.”
She said the only way the State could lose its 300-year ownership of the land is if it decided not to build a hospital on it
“The big term and condition is that the HSE is obliged to put on to that site a maternity hospital and there is a restriction that the site is only to be used for the purposes of a hospital,” she said.
“So, everything we have heard about could the rent go up to €850,000 - all of that - that is only possible if the HSE is no longer putting on to the site a hospital.
“Once we are in the realm of delivery of public health services, this will be a very long lease that in my view amounts, for the 299 years, to State ownership.”
Can the Catholic Church exert influence over the new hospital?
Ms Murphy said the “news is very new on this”, noting that the Religious Sisters of Charity only transferred their ownership of the land the week before last.
“As of today - and I understand this can be difficult for people to go along with because two weeks ago the situation was different - but as of today, the Religious Sisters of Charity have transferred their shareholding. They are no longer owners; they do not have any role.”
But doesn’t the new owner also have a religious ethos?
Ms Murphy said there is a reference to the ethos of Mother Mary Aikenhead - or in other words the Catholic Church - in the pre-amble to the St Vincent’s Holdings CLG constitution, but not the constitution itself.
In any event, she said the hospital will be run by a completely new company that has no reference to Mary Aikenhead or to ‘compassionate care’, another term which has been causing worry.
“Those words do not appear in the constitution of the new National Maternity Hospital company,” she said.
“The structure of this deal - and this point has been missed, I think, quite a lot - is that there is a separate company for the new National Maternity Hospital.
“It is going to be the successor of the Holles Street body. The Holles Street Hospital is going to move over will be its own company. Everyone else is locked out of that company.
“That company has rules that say it will deliver all of the maternity gynaecological services and there is no way for its shareholders to interfere with those services.”
But won’t St Vincent’s appoint board members to the new company?
Ms Murphy said the board is made up nine people – three put forward by St Vincent’s Holdings, three appointed by Holles Street and three appointed by Government.
“All nine of those have to legally abide by the company’s constitution and that company’s constitution has been written expressly - and I am reading - ‘in a manner designed to preserve the independence and autonomy of the company,’” she said.
“The first job of that company is the ‘independent operation of a new maternity hospital without religious ethos or ethnic or other distinction’.
“There are also very strict rules in the constitution about who those nine people are, meaning they all have to have the balance of skills and competences that are appropriate to a public hospital.”
But couldn’t that change in the future?
Ms Murphy said the people appointed to the board are legally obliged to follow the company constitution regardless of their own personal stance.
In the ‘very unlikely event’ that the independence of the hospital was being challenged, the minister of the day has a ‘legal right and an express duty’ to step in and protect it.
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