Speaking on the radio yesterday morning, the Taoiseach described questions regarding ownership of the new national maternity hospital as a “red herring”. That is a very unfair characterisation of very genuine concerns that are grounded in decades of women’s experiences of healthcare in this State. The Taoiseach's dismissal of these concerns is particularly disappointing given that his comments pre-empt Oireachtas examination of the Government’s proposal. The process and debate to take place this week at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and in the Dáil are undermined when the head of Government brushes aside the central questions before the scrutiny even begins. Why bother allowing for the scrutiny of the proposals at all if the Taoiseach presents the current deal as a fait accompli and says the Government will be "pressing ahead" with the plan regardless of the outcome of Oireachtas deliberations? That is the wrong way to deal with this issue.
The Government proposes to invest between €800 million and €1 billion of taxpayers’ money in building a new and much-needed national maternity hospital. It simply makes sense that the land on which that hospital is to be built is owned by the State. This means a very clean transaction whereby the land is transferred directly to the State. That was the original plan so why do we get this convoluted, messy ownership structure instead? The answer to that question is all about the financial power of the land. It is about the St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group retaining control of the land so it can use its value as leverage for future financial transactions. It is about the private interests of this group trumping the public good and a Government that is willing to let this happen. The Taoiseach can talk all day about the land costing only a tenner a year but what he does not say is that the St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group retains the right to impose a rent of €850,000 a year if a dispute about the operation of the hospital arises in the future. This gives the private landlord significant leverage and control and it most certainly does not amount to public ownership, as the Taoiseach has claimed.
Genuine concerns have also been expressed about the lack of clarity regarding the definition of "clinical appropriateness" in the legal documents. While the Minister says he has legal guarantees, it will be judges and not politicians who will adjudicate on any potential dispute and any legal interpretation.
For this and other reasons, the ownership of the site is not a red herring. Everybody wants this new hospital and we want it built quickly, but we need to get it right.
Is é an rud is ciallmhaire ná go dtógfar an t-ospidéal máithreachais nua ar thalamh poiblí. Is é seo an bealach is fearr chun na himní atá ar dhaoine maidir le neamhspleáchas cliniciúil an ospidéil a laghdú agus chun infheistíocht shuntasach an Stáit i gcúram sláinte forásach nua-aimseartha do mhná a chosaint.
This convoluted and complex ownership model is the wrong footing on which to proceed. What we need is a public maternity hospital built on public land, and this can still be done. Will the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Health now get around a table with St. Vincent’s Healthcare Group and convince it to transfer the land directly to the State, as was the original plan and the original commitment from the Sisters of Charity?