Health Minister favours review of wider issue of Church-State relationship

By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith and Jimmy Woulfe

Health Minister Simon Harris is keen to begin a review of the ownership and patronage of dozens of hospitals across the country as he feels it is time to settle the wider issue of the Church-State relationship, senior government sources have said.

It is understood that the Department of Health is considering a review of the ownership and religious patronage of hospitals similar to the schools patronage and divestment reforms in the wake of the scandal engulfing the national maternity hospital.

Should the hospital patronage review suggestion be acted upon, it could potentially affect a large number of hospitals across the country, including the St Vincent’s and the Mater Hospitals in Dublin and the Mercy University Hospital in Cork.

Sources stressed the move is still in its infancy, with Mr Harris understood to have only discussed it on an informal basis with a small number of Cabinet Ministers and officials in order to gauge their willingness to support him on such a move.

The Irish Examiner understands that despite the potential cost of such a move, Mr Harris is said to be in favour of diluting the say of religious institutions in the country’s hospitals.

In recent days, the Government has been on the back foot because of the escalating crisis over the involvement of the Sisters of Charity in the planned new national maternity hospital, amid disputed concerns, the facility’s medical advice will be limited by Catholic doctrine.

Comments by Bishop of Elphin Kevin Doran that the Catholic ethos would have to be respected in any hospital on land owned by the congregation have caused some concern within Government and contradict assurances that the maternity hospital’s independence would be guaranteed.

Mr Harris and a number of other ministers have insisted this will not be the case at the new national maternity hospital — which is due to be built at St Vincent’s Hospital on land owned by the Sisters of Charity — and that religion will not be allowed to influence any medical procedures at the site.

The major potential stumbling block to the proposal is the likely cost and complexity of making it a reality.

However, one senior Government source said that should the review occur, it is likely to mirror the schools patronage and divestment review instigated by then Labour TD and Education Minister Ruairi Quinn under the previous Government.

This review began in 2012 when Mr Quinn instigated processes for schools under Catholic or other religious patronage to be transferred to alternative patrons in areas where parents wanted more choice. Just 10 schools have changed hands to date.

Meanwhile, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald yesterday called on the Catholic religious authorities to back off and allow the maternity hospital at the St Vincent’s Hospital campus to proceed.

Speaking at Templemore College, she said: “The women of Ireland badly need it. It has to go ahead and it has to go ahead quickly. But I would say the time for any interference in a modern maternity hospital for the future, any interference by religious authorities, that time is in the past.

“And for the future, women and the country need clarity and that’s what the minister is working to ensure we have. I hope over the next few days we will see significant progress.”

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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