NMH row is a clash between two extremes
Western People 31.5.2022
Irish nuns (or more accurately, Irish religious sisters) must be the most dumped upon constituency in Ireland. No matter what they do, they seem to be forever getting it in the neck. As again recently with the Sisters of Charity and the site for the National Maternity Hospital (NMH). Even Breda O’Brien, the Irish Times columnist, who is usually loyal to Catholics and defensive of Catholicism, has accused the Sisters of Charity of ramping up anti-Catholicism, alienating ‘faithful’ Catholics and ensuring that Catholic health care has no future in Ireland.
While columnists (mea culpa) like to do a bit of ramping up themselves and sometimes exaggerating for effect (mea maxima culpa) I’m not too sure that, in this instance, that Breda has been fair to the Sisters of Charity. Columnists are in the happy position of commenting on high on other people’s decisions while those who make them have the more difficult (and unenviable) task of trying to satisfy a series of sometimes conflicting interests.
Some, at one end of the spectrum of opinion, suggested that the Sisters of Charity should have refused to respond to the need for a suitable site for a badly needed NMH. ‘Give them nothing’ was the blunt advice. Those, at the other end of the spectrum, suggested they should just sign the land over. The first would sit very uneasily with the long history of service to Irish health care by the Sisters of Charity. The second wouldn’t pay due respect to the huge contribution of hundreds of Sisters to that history.
Inevitably, in an effort to satisfy the many, the chosen route meant that the extremes were going to be disappointed. By extremes I mean those described by Breda O’Brien as ‘faithful Catholics’ and people like Dr Peter Boylan, who has led the opposition to the Sisters of Charity and more broadly to any Catholic presence in health care. (To Breda I would respectfully ask: ‘Are those of us who disagree with her to be branded ‘unfaithful’ Catholics? To Dr Boylan, I would ask: ‘Are Catholics to be deemed lesser citizens again?’)
Let’s look again at what happened. The Sisters of Charity handed over property worth millions of Euro as their contribution to the building of a new NMH. It wasn’t just given free gratis and for nothing. (It was as Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, explained, a bargain at €10 a year for 299 years.) The site also had the added advantage of being adjacent to a general hospital, in the eyes of medical experts, an essential prerequisite in terms of emergency medical care for mothers and their babies.
Those who were grateful for this exceptionally generous gift generally kept their silence – apart from Peader Tóibín of Aontú and Danny Healy-Rae of Kerry – because saying thanks to the Sisters of Charity, in the toxic conditions in Ireland now for all things Catholic, might have militated against what is now an astute and required anti-Catholic political stance – especially among politicians on the make.
Those who were ungrateful flew the conspiracy flag (arguing that once the hospital was built the Sisters of Charity or their Vatican agents would swoop to deny Irish mothers their legal rights) and spread fear and, what the present Master of the NMH called, ‘misinformation’ in an effort to derail the project.
While Dr Boylan used his credentials as a former Master of the hospital to invest his conspiracy theory with some credibility, the present Master, Shane Higgins, disagreed completely with Dr Boylan, as did several former Masters and, it seems, 52 senior NMH clinicians, including the current heads of midwifery and nursing.
In other words, the vast majority of those who will be providing the services in the new hospital are happy that all the intended services allowed for in Irish law will be provided in the new hospital. Mr Higgins pointed out that there is no secret conspiracy, that it’s wrong to assert that the new hospital’s services will be compromised and that the claims about the Sisters of Charity retaining ownership of the hospital are simply wrong.
This clearly takes the ground from under Dr Boylan’s argument as does the clear certainty of the government parties that state control over the new hospital is absolutely watertight. But, despite all of that, Dr Boylan is still attempting to delay the building of what is a much needed public health facility.
Predictably, of course, politicians are trying to make hay for the next election by amplifying the horrors of possible Catholic participation in health care, an example of which was Sinn Féin voting in the Dáil against their own motion in what was for them an embarrassing political circus. This political self-serving helped to suggest (wrongly) that the lingering doubts expressed about ownership of the hospital have wide support.
Meanwhile, Dr Boylan has moved from the higher ground of dense legal argument and the middle ground of distrust for the wiles of the Vatican and most recently to the lower ground of lambasting the Sisters of Charity on Twitter in an effort to bolster his disintegrating arguments.
Someone sent him pictures, he informs us solemnly, taken ‘an hour ago’ in St Vincent’s Hospital with signs ‘Mass in hospital oratory, Blessed Sacrament exposed and Stations of the Cross’ and he gleefully reposted them – presumably as some kind of validation of his arguments.
So? Would Dr Boylan ban Mass or having an oratory where patients or their relatives might find solace in silence prayer? Is every cross on the wall of every hospital to be removed? It would seem that what’s here is not an argument about ownership of a hospital but an instance of bog standard anti-Catholic aggression.
The Sisters of Charity, in my view, are to be commended, not excoriated, for recognising that sometimes in life and in religion there are no black and white solutions to complex issues and that, sometimes we just have to live in the grey.