Controversy over New Maternity Hospital and Religious Institutions

Published on 6 June 2021 at 14:37

In recent days, controversy and concern has emerged among some TDs who are concerned about the possible involvement of religious institutions in the governance of the new national maternity hospital. This comes after a private members’ motion was brought forward to Dáil Éireann, this week, by Galway West TD and Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Catherine Connolly, that called on the Government to ‘further ensure the public ownership and operation of the new National Maternity Hospital’ and ensure the implementation of the National Maternity Strategy 2016-2026 implementation strategy.


The Irish Times said that ‘the motion, which the Government supports, calls for a comprehensive ‘time-bound’ implementation plan for the 2016-2026 national maternity strategy… It also demands a plan for the implementation of the recommendations of the Hiqa report on better maternity standards with a focus on obstetric emergencies’.


According to The Irish Times, ‘TDs express concern about ‘Kafkaesque’ arrangements between companies behind facility… Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has insisted that he will not tolerate governance with any religious ethos at the new national maternity hospital (NMH) being built on the St. Vincent’s hospital complex in Dublin… He told the Dáil that ‘services will be provided in accordance with the law and national policies… That is all’.


However, Catherine Connolly begged to differ. The Irish Times stated that ‘Independent TD Catherine Connolly called for an end to the ‘Kafkaesque’ arrangements ‘between holding companies and designated companies’ for the hospital… It is a puppet on the string for the controlling Catholic religion behind that,’ she said… I would say the same thing about any religion… It has no place in a public hospital’.


The Irish Times elaborated further by saying that ‘they were speaking during a debate on a motion about maternity services introduced by Ms Connolly… Mr Donnelly said: ‘I will not countenance any new maternity hospital that has any governance or influence whatsoever involving any religious ethos…


That is an absolute commitment,’ he said, reiterating a pledge he made to the Oireachtas health committee and again on Tuesday to the National Women’s Council of Ireland that has been campaigning on the services… Plans to move the NMH from Holles Street in Dublin 2 to the St Vincent’s University Hospital campus at Elm Park have been delayed amid concerns about ownership and religious ethos… The legal framework around the planned relocation is nearing completion…


Describing the project as ‘unprecedented and complex’ Mr Donnelly said the legal framework would ‘protect the State’s investment in the new hospital and ensure that it remains in State ownership… The legal framework will also ensure that health services at the new hospital will be providing without religious, ethnic or other distinction’.


Whilst Social Democrats TD for Wicklow, Jennifer Whitmore, said that the ‘Minister’s statement that services would be providing without religious, ethnic or other distinction ‘means the hospital would not discriminate against people on their religion or ethnicity in the context of access to the hospital’, she said that ‘does not mean that the services provided will be without religious distinction’.


Further, The Irish Times said that Jennifer Whitmore said that ‘Mr Donnelly’s statement that services would be provided in accordance with law and national policy ‘completely rings hollow’ because partners were not allowed into maternity units despite the Minister and chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan saying there was no legal basis or health reason to prevent them attending…


Meanwhile, Catherine Connolly asked the Minister to confirm ‘that he is fully committed to the National Maternity Hospital being in full public ownership on public land, whether it is bought through a contract or by compulsory purchase… Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane said ‘why we had to go down the route of establishing a company to manage the land and the hospital, is beyond me’… He said the land should have been transferred or gifted to the State and ‘then the national maternity hospital would be fully owned by the State… The land would be owned and managed by the HSE as opposed to being managed by others on a board’.


Meanwhile, leader of the Labour Party, Alan Kelly, said that ‘the situation was ‘deadlocked’ and warned that until ownership structures were sorted out, ‘we cannot proceed’. He warned Mr Donnelly that ‘frankly, he will not be doing anything unless he does something about the ownership model that was structured and put in place in 2017 and has been thundering alone since then’. ‘This nettle must be grasped… The model will not work unless this is done through compulsory purchase order or is gifted… It is as simple as that,’ said Mr Kelly.


It remains to be seen whether the Minister for Health will follow through on his commitment that he will not tolerate any involvement of religious ethos at the new national maternity hospital in Dublin. As stated by Catherine Connolly, there cannot be the involvement of any religious institution in the operation of maternity services.


It is welcome that the Government are supporting the motion of Catherine Connolly which will ensure that the new national maternity hospital will be in full public ownership. However, the Government must follow through with its commitment to ensure that this national maternity hospital operates without any religious ethos and is in full public ownership on public land.


For too long, the religious institutions, particularly the Catholic Church, have been deeply involved in the governance of hospitals and running of healthcare in Ireland. There is an opportunity to end this permanently and for the new national maternity hospital in Dublin to be run with the purpose of caring for the needs of women, not by religious ethos.

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