Last week, the Tánaiste, on his own behalf and presumably on behalf of the Government, made remarks that can only be described as woefully belated in respect of the new national maternity hospital. It is fair to say that we are now looking at a mess with the fingerprints of successive Governments all over it dating back to 2013, when James Reilly was Minister for Health and Children, which is more than eight years ago. Yet, to this day a situation persists where women in this State cannot get the care that they and we deserve in a world-class hospital facility.
Why is it that the Government is so late in expressing concerns about ownership of the land on which the hospital is to be built and about the governance model? It cannot say that it was not told about this. The level of public concern and, indeed, anger at any involvement by the Sisters of Charity in the governance of the hospital has been very well flagged for many years, as have the very well-founded concerns regarding the ownership of the land on which this hospital is to be located and what this means for the State’s substantial investment in the new hospital. This project is six years behind schedule and costs have escalated, ballooned by more than €500 million in that time. This project could easily top the €1 billion mark. Ghosts of the children’s hospital, in financial terms, echo through this whole saga.
A Sinn Féin motion was passed by the Dáil in 2017 and supported by the Taoiseach’s party, Fianna Fáil, at the time. It called for the new national maternity hospital to remain entirely within public ownership with legally guaranteed independence from all non-medical influence in its clinical operations. That remains the absolute bottom line and is not a matter of preference.
It is now beyond belief that more than €40 million has been invested in respect of a site that is not in the full ownership of the State or that anyone or any Government would countenance investing hundreds of million of euro in public moneys in infrastructure on a site that is not fully owned by the State.
The Sisters of Charity say that at no stage did any Government or Minister approach them on the subject of purchasing the site in question. We also know, and they confirm, that the Department of Health did agree in principle to a convoluted process of establishing a private trust with a board not appointed by the Minister and with the State spending hundreds of millions of euro on a hospital on land that it does not own.
This is a mess that goes way back to former Ministers, James Reilly and Deputies Varadkar and Harris, and it is now unfolding on the watch of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly. This needs to be urgently sorted. What does the Taoiseach propose to do on this matter? It is clear in yesterday evening’s statement that the Sisters of Charity are resisting handing over and transferring freehold of the site in question. They cite governance reasons for that. That will raise very deep concerns and suspicions as to the full bona fide independence of the hospital. Where do we go now to secure this hospital in full public ownership?