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National Maternity Hospital ownership

Full confidence in the Sisters of Charity?  Or a public independent health service that defends women's rights?

23 June 2021

St Vincentís Hospital, Elm Park, Dublin. Photograph Nick Bradshaw / The Irish Times

Following widespread protest and public disquiet the Irish government has made a modest tactical retreat on the looming scandal of the proposed National Maternity Hospital.

At the moment the Hospital will be built on land owned by a Catholic order of Nuns and will be leased by a shell company after 100 years the land and Hospital will revert to the Shell company.

The governing board is not based around representation of the public.

The ethos of the Religious Sisters of Charity would prevent provision of abortion services.  Claims that the new board would not represent their views are met with widespread scepticism.

Where before the government expressed full confidence in the deal, in the face of public concern they have moved back slightly.

They still claim that the transfer of land ownership to St Vincentís Healthcare Group means that there are no issues about ethos and that a full range of services will be available. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that this was just another example of a public private model used widely by the government.

However there is now unease about the ownership of the land and government representation on the board of the hospital.

Health minister Stephen Donnelly has now said that he will propose buying the site, but that the existing agreement is bulletproof and he has full confidence in the Sisters of Charity.

A different story is told by Dr Peter Boylan, a former NMH master.  The Vaticanís permission to the Nuns to transfer their 100 per cent shareholding (€220 million of assets) in the St Vincentís Healthcare Group to the new, not-for-profit holding company, St Vincentís Holdings was granted on the basis that specific parts of canon law were observed.

Dr Boylan pointed out that this was a standard shell game used by Catholic institutions to maintain church power.

The economic background is that,  in the early days of the state, the government decided that they could not provide social services for the poor and handed health and education to the church, with horrific consequences for the working class, especially for working class women. The Sisters of Charity are renowned for their neglect and abuse of children.

That scandal is unresolved. Investigations are denounced as whitewash and even where abuse of children is documented the orders fail to pay even small amounts of compensation.

In the current economic circumstances the government could pay for the land and establish full control and ownership of the hospital.  But could it do so for the health service as a whole? Could it do that while paying the sovereign debt, staying within the spending guidelines of the European Central Bank and keeping low rates of corporation tax?

There is an easy solution. The state paid compensation for the crimes of the Religious Orders.  The Nuns dodged payment. Why not simply expropriate the land? Take it into state ownership?

But as Leo Varadkar said, the public-private model is the basic model for the state. In health, education, housing and transport the aim is to hand over public resources. Expropriation fills Irish capitalism with horror, especially as they benefit so greatly from the current situation.

It is now obvious that the battle for universal health care, especially for women, will need a movement to match the water charges fight.

It's obvious that the referendum battle closed down too early.  Abortion rights were limited and the possibility of access for working class women ignored. It's that lack that leads to the crisis of the maternity hospital today.

We must call all those who supported 'Yes' in the referendum to return to the fray. A national conference should be called now to build the fight.

No church control of health services!
For a women's right to choose!
Build a national health service for all!

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