‘What’s the message to the women of Ireland? Is it calm down?’ – Opposition attacks Government decision to proceed with new maternity hospital

Hugh O'Connell and Gabija Gataveckaite

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said the Government's decision to proceed with the National Maternity Hospital is a wrong one.

It comes after the Cabinet today signed off on the new National Maternity Hospital being developed on the St Vincent’s Hospital campus.

The decision on the hospital had been delayed for a number of weeks due to concerns over the potential influence the Church could have over procedures being carried out in the facility.

However, the Government decided the contracts and constitution of the new hospital will allow for all legally permissible procedures to be carried out by doctors and nursing working on the new site

Speaking in the Dáil today, Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald said the Government has made no real effort to secure State ownership of the land for the new maternity hospital –  and has been contradicted by the landowners themselves

Last week Health Minister Stephen Donnelly told the Dáil that he had formally requested that the land be transferred to the State, Ms McDonald said.

But the chair of the St Vincent's Healthcare Group (SVHG) told the Oireachtas health committee yesterday that there was “no meaningful engagement” by the Taoiseach and the Minister to secure the site into State ownership, she said.

But Mr Martin said in reply that his understanding was that the chair of the SVHG, James Menton, was willing to “correct the record” in that regard, because Mr Donnelly had reiterated the request of former minister Simon Harris.

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall echoed that there had been no meaningful engagement on ownership over the past five years.

The pause over the last two weeks, supposedly to address genuine concerns, had been a sham and a charade, she said.

“What’s the message to the women of Ireland? Is it ‘Calm Down’?” she asked, suggesting that the Cabinet was acting as if it knew better. The overall attitude of the Government had been “completely patronising,” she said, and it was now rushing through its decision.

Mr Martin said his personal view was that a lot of the criticisms against the hospital arrangements “did not stand up.”

Ms McDonald said the Government’s stance had been directly contradicted by Mr Menton, who said the last time the State had directly engaged with the group as regards bringing land into public ownership was five years ago.

“It gets worse, because Mr Menton also said that the group has received no correspondence from yourself as Taoiseach, requesting that the land be transferred to the State,” she said.

“This is something that you later confirmed to the media. So we now know that neither you, nor the Minister for Health, made any serious and meaningful effort to bring this land into State ownership.

“You came in here and told us that such a transaction wasn't possible. But the truth is that you didn't even bother to ask -- and now you sign off on a deal that fails to provide the best protection for almost €1 billion of taxpayers’ money.”

Mr Martin said it was “time for a bit of common sense and reality” to prevail, emphasising that a lease of 300 years at “a tenner a year” was ownership in all but name.

He said there was no “unseemly rush” to decision making, as was now being claimed by the Opposition. The decision on co-location had been taken back in 2013, he said, and planning permission had been granted in 2017.

“I am very clear in my conscience as Taoiseach. I am not prepared to prevaricate. I am determined that we move on in building proper modern facilities for women in the 21st Century,” he said.

There was "no conspiracy" anywhere and time would prove it, he said.

"This has been debated now for nine years. It does require to be brought to a conclusion."

Meanwhile the Government will not oppose a Sinn Féin motion calling for public ownership of the site and building of the new National Maternity Hospital, Independent.ie understands.

It comes as one backbencher said earlier she would vote against the Coalition on the issue.

Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan said on Twitter she would vote against the Government having earlier told RTÉ she was "hugely disappointed" that Cabinet was proceeding with the plan.

"As I have no other way of voicing my dissent, I will not be in a position to vote against the Sinn Féin motion on this issue," the Dublin Central TD told Today with Claire Byrne earlier.

Ms Hourigan said she had "heartfelt and genuine concern around the pushing through of this deal" having in recent days raised concerns about, among other issues, the lack of a finalised business case for the hospital.

Ms Hourigan said she could not comment on the Government decision until the debate takes place in the Dáil this evening.

Green Party minister Roderic O’Gorman has pleaded with party colleague rebel TD Neasa Hourigan to not vote against the Government in a Sinn Féin motion tomorrow.

The Dublin TD told RTÉ Radio earlier today that she “will not be in a position to vote against the Sinn Féin motion on this issue”.

“I hope Neasa is in a position to continue to support the Government, I know she’s raised legitimate concerns about elements of the agreement, as have many,” Mr O’Gorman told journalists.

“I think there’s also a clear need to move ahead with the project.”

However, as the Sinn Féin motion is not binding on Government and has no legal effect ministers agreed at Cabinet that it will not be opposed in the Dáil, meaning it will theoretically pass without a vote tomorrow.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has insisted that concerns around the NMH site have been “comprehensively addressed”.

Minister Donnelly has said that he was not being disingenuous when the Cabinet agreed to delay signing off on the NMH deal two weeks ago.

Ministers this morning agreed to put in place an annual report of the services provided at the new hospital for the next five years, as well as setting up a Centre of Excellence.

The controversial phrase “clinically appropriate” will remain in the legal agreement, with the Cabinet agreeing that the phrase means that “all legally permissible services in maternity, gynaecology, obstetrics, neonatology and gender recognition” will be carried out.

“The State will own the building and the land for the next 300 years. The State will provide the operating licence. There will not be, there cannot be and there never will be any religious ethos or influence in the provision of services in the new hospital,” he said.

“We will own the land and we will own the building for the next 300 years in the same way that anyone who owns their apartment.

“If you buy an apartment, I don’t think anyone would suggest that you don’t own that apartment, you do own it - but you own it under a leasehold.”

Government expects that the hospital will be built in four and a half years once a tender process is completed, however, some tenders may take up to two years.

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