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Ownership issue poses ‘risk’ to National Maternity Hospital project – Tánaiste

There is a “risk” that the long-planned relocation of the national maternity hospital to the new St Vincent’s site does not go ahead, due to difficulties agreeing a deal for the move, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said.

The Government had a number of “absolute red lines” that had to be met in the deal to build the new hospital on the site of St Vincent’s Hospital.

“I do think it will be fine in the end, but it’s not true to say it’s been fine all long, there have been problems all long,” Mr Varadkar said.

Speaking on Saturday, the Fine Gael leader said there were outstanding issues to do with the ownership of the land, and governance arrangements at the new maternity hospital.

The State “would be happy” to buy the site for the new hospital from St Vincent’s Hospital Group (SVHG) or the Religious Sisters of Charity, the order who own the south Dublin land, he said.

The Government was “not happy with the current proposal around the lease” of the land, and was also pushing to have representatives on the new hospital’s board, he said.

“In terms of red lines for the Government and for us, this hospital has to be publicly owned, and it has to be the case that any obstetric or gynaecological service that is legal in this State has to be available in that hospital,” he said.

“There are some issues around the ownership of the land on which the hospital is going to be built, that is a difficulty.

“We are not happy with the current proposal around the lease and also the governance of the hospital, we strongly believe that this hospital should have Government or ministerial reps on the board,” he said.

Mr Varadkar was speaking to reporters at the RDS, ahead of a speech at his party’s Ard Fheis on Saturday, which is being held online.

There was a “risk” that the deal to build the maternity hospital at the St Vincent’s campus could collapse, he said, despite the lengthy negotiations over recent years.

“We have two voluntary hospitals, neither of which the Government owns, both of which have a Catholic ethos, being brought onto the same site, and it has been very tricky to unwind that and get it right,” he said.

“Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good, but what we’re looking for is the very good,” Mr Varadkar said.

Complex row

The complex row over the project has its roots in concerns over whether Catholic ethos could constrain the new hospital from carrying out abortions, sterilisations or other procedures contrary to Vatican teaching.

The ownership of the land where the hospital is to be based has, in turn, become politically charged.

The site, currently owned by the Religious Sisters of Charity, is to be transferred to a charitable entity called St Vincent’s Holdings. Campaigners have criticised the structure of the deal and claimed the hospital may be constrained in the procedures it can carry out.

They say if the hospital were to be constructed on lands once controlled by the church, and then by an entity established by St Vincent’s, which the Sisters of Charity was involved in running until 2017, such constraints may ultimately apply. They also have concerns over the constitution of the new entity which will own the land, which they say commits to upholding Catholic principles.

The order has said it will have no involvement in the running of the hospital, nor its ethos, while the Government has said all procedures legal in the State will be carried out there.

The controversy over ownership of the land has been further complicated after both SVHG and the Religious Sisters of Charity said the State had not made any approaches to buy the land. Earlier this week, a meeting of politicians was told the State had made several efforts to do so, but the Religious Sisters of Charity said that it had “never at any point been contacted by the Government or the State to discuss purchasing the site” on the grounds of the SVHG.

In a statement to The Irish Times, the SVHG said that “at no stage was any proposal or approach to sell the land, meaningful or otherwise, received or considered by the board of the SVHG.”

However, another letter sent by the chair of SVHG to the Department of Health in 2017 and seen by The Irish Times suggests the issue of a sale had been broached between the two parties.

In the letter, the SVHG argued that separation of ownership or governance of the new hospital on the St Vincent’s Campus would disrupt care for patients.

“This is why SVHG cannot countenance any sale or lease of part of the land on site or any separate ownership of a hospital on the site,” said the SVHG in the letter sent to the Dept of Health in May 2017. On Friday the SVHG said the letter only demonstrates that it had “let it be known why we could not consider a land sale”, and that there was no firm offer received.

‘Willing to buy’

Referring to this letter, Mr Varadkar said today: “I am informed that we have correspondence between the secretary general of the Department of Health and the chairman of the board of St Vincent’s, stating that they were not interested in discussing the sale of that site.”

“If it is the case that St Vincent’s Hospital Group, or the Sisters of Charity, are willing to talk about the sale of that land, we are willing to buy, it is as simple as that,” he said.

There would be “renewed engagement” between all the parties to the deal to try and find a solution, he said.

Earlier on Saturday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin reiterated his belief that when the State invests as much as it has in this hospital project, it should own the buildings and the land on which they are constructed.

“From my perspective, the ideal position is that when the State had invested so much in a new hospital, that the State should own that hospital and the land on which it is built,” he said.

Mr Martin acknowledged the most recent estimates suggest the new hospital will cost €800 million, up from an initial estimate of €150 million.

“The key point is of course that in terms of the hospital itself, it will serve the women of Ireland and will not be influenced in terms of any religious ethos whatsoever, I am very confident about that aspect of it.”

A huge investment

Mr Martin acknowledged there had been a whole series of negotiations over ownership of the hospital and the site going back to 2016 but said such matters need to be resolved if the State is to make such a huge investment.

“There have been lots of negotiations over the last few years going back to certainly 2016 and the Mulvey Report onwards … I’ve been consistent in my messaging but we are very clear, we want the maternity hospital built.

“But there’s a very basic point in terms of the taxpayer and I’m thinking about the future now, we’re in a new era when the State is building new hospitals and paying the full total of the costs, I think the State should own the facility.

“I think there should be a sensible realisation that the State is making a huge investment here and the State is also is now investing in the vast bulk of health services now in the country and is a key player in that respect.

“The State is a much bigger player now than it would have been historically in terms of provision and that has to be reflected in ownership structures … that is the basic principle that is informing our thinking right now.”

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