Nuns are collateral damage of Leo’s games
Western People 6th July 2021
Do I think that the new maternity hospital costing €800,000,000 of taxpayers’ money should be built on land owned 100% by the state? Yes, I do.
Do I think that the Sisters of Charity should ‘gift’ the site to the state’? No, I don’t.
At present, most if not all Irish politicians want the Sisters of Charity to hand over a very valuable 29-acre site in Dublin to the state and at present a sustained effort is being made to bully the Sisters of Charity into complying. One politician in Dáil Éireann said, ‘It is time to take the gloves off to the Sisters of Charity’. Another fumed, ‘We owe them (Sisters of Charity) absolutely nothing. Nothing’. All par for the present course as politicians are more than happy to surf the populist anti-Catholic mood.
So what’s this about? In three simple lessons: (i) the National Maternity Hospital (NMH) is inadequate to growing needs; (ii) an agreed requirement for a new national maternity hospital is the on-site proximity of a general hospital with all the medical services that might be required in critical situations; (iii) another key requirement is that the new hospital would be able to deliver the full range of services open to it under the law.
When the Sisters of Charity offered a site adjacent to St Vincent’s Hospital complex in Elm Park, the only reservation the government had was (iii) above, as some services, like the provision of abortion in certain circumstances, are in conflict with the ‘ethos’ of Catholic hospitals.
Clearly, if the proposed Elm Park site was to tick all the boxes, the government and the Sisters of Charity needed to talk. Which they did and, it seemed – especially at the subsequent triumphant announcement by the then Minister for Health, Simon Harris – that all the ducks had been lined up in a row. Specifically, there were no problems with governance or ownership or Catholic ethos.
Then, a few weeks ago – even though planning permission had been applied for and received and millions of euros already spent on the requisite designs and specifications – Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar threw the equivalent of a grenade into the mix by indicating that ownership was still a problem and that ‘any obstetric or gynaecological service that was legal in the state’ would have to be available in the new hospital.
This intervention seemed odd, to say the least. We’re used to Irish government ministers criticising what might be regarded as ‘the Boris Johnson school of negotiations’ – agree to something to get it over the line and afterwards change your mind in order to exert pressure to get it modified – as with the famous protocol. (The notion that, if you make an agreement you honour it, seems to have disappeared out of the contemporary political lexicon.)
Up to Varadkar’s intervention, the lone voice objecting to the agreement co-locating the new hospital in Elm Park was Peter Boylan, a former Master of the Holles Street Hospital – a persistent Greek chorus of just one. But it was Varadkar’s grenade that sparked an unusual unanimous convergence of political opinion in the Dáil that the state should own the site of the new hospital, and that in turn led to a public demonstration supporting that conclusion outside Leinster House.
It seemed as if a new consensus was emerging that would force the Sisters of Charity to capitulate to a revision of an agreement they had already entered into in good faith. In effect, it was an ill-disguised attempt to bully the Sisters of Charity at a time when the reputation of the Catholic Church (and nuns) was at a very low ebb.
Then, a week or so ago, a letter appeared in The Irish Times, signed by no less than 42 senior clinicians at the NMH, including the current master and three former masters. They were concerned that ‘misinformation’ and ‘misunderstanding’ would delay ‘a vital project to create a world-class maternity hospital for the women and babies of Ireland’ and they made a number of points: (i) all medical procedures including terminations and assisted reproduction services within Irish law are currently being provided at Holles St and will be provided in the new hospital; (ii) the misinformation that services at the new hospital would be curtailed by any religious ethos was particularly troubling given its inaccuracy; (3) a cast-iron guarantee in this regard had been already included in the proposed operating licence to be granted by the Department of Health for the new hospital and ‘we would not allow the project to proceed without this in place’; and (iv) ‘we as clinicians could not countenance any restriction on our practice based on religion’.
So, according to the medical experts, effectively the opposition to the arrangement with the Sisters of Charity was peddling ‘misinformation’ and ‘misunderstanding’. There would be no restriction on treatments and no subservience to religious control in the new hospital. All of this had ‘a cast-iron guarantee’.
So, if the experts have concluded that there isn’t any problem, what’s going on? What, in a word, is Tánaiste Varadkar at?
There are a number of possibilities. Is this Varadkar licking his finger, holding it up in the air to see what way the wind is blowing, now that Labour’s Ivana Bacik is set to over-take the Fine Gael candidate in the by-election? So, is Varadkar merely flying a flag to the middle-class Dublin Bay South voters and the implicit bullying the Sisters of Charity is just part of the collateral damage?
In any event, there seems to be only one solution. Let the Sisters of Charity sell the site of the hospital to the state and use the enormous proceeds to re-direct their own medical services, especially towards the poor. And let Leo explain the consequent loss of millions to the voters of Dublin Bay South – ahead of the by-election next Thursday.