From 2012 to 2017 the decision to relocate the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street to a site on the Elm Park campus of St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin, owned by the Religious Sisters of Charity, created sustained levels of public controversy.
Indeed, the proposal was attacked from every side of the political and cultural spectrum as questions arose around what kind of reproductive or termination of pregnancy-related procedures could and would be offered in a new hospital built on land owned by a Catholic religious order.
In the heat of the ensuing debate the Religious Sisters of Charity were accused of moral complicity in the provision of future abortion and sterilisation services, while the State was accused of incomprehensibly transferring ownership of a €300million-plus project to a ‘bunch of nuns’ in an apparent clear breach of the wider, secular, public interest.
But in 2016 an agreement between the National Maternity Hospital (Holles St.) and St Vincent’s Hospital Group, mediated by Kieran Mulvey, made it explicitly clear that a new special purpose company, The National Maternity Hospital at Elm Park DAC would be set up to provide extensive ‘reserved powers’ to the Minister for Health as well as clinical and operational independence in the provision of maternity, gynaecology, obstetrics and neonatal services “without religious, ethnic or other distinction”.
The State’s investment would also be protected for future generations.
It was then confirmed last May that the Sisters of Charity would be transferring their shares in St Vincent’s Healthcare Group (SVHG) after 186 years involvement with St Vincent’s Hospital to a not-for-profit with charitable status company governed by Irish company law (not Canon Law).
In other words, the sisters could and would have no further say in how the new hospital was run.
The Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly even assured the Dáil that when the legal framework was published it would categorically show that the new hospital “will be operated without religious or other distinction”.
Now, what should hopefully be clear at this point, irrespective of where one stands on the appropriateness of the strategy adopted by the Sisters of Charity, especially with respect to the preservation of a Catholic healthcare ethos, is that the new National Maternity Hospital will operate according to the laws of Ireland and this will include facilitating the provision of abortion services.
What is interesting however is that despite such clear evidence being laid before them, many politicians, particularly those on the left, remain determined to continue framing the issue as some kind of Machiavellian plot that will enable the new hospital to operate as an ‘anti-woman’ institution beholden to a ‘regressive’ Catholic ethos.
In fact, we know that the co-leader of the Social Democrats Roisin Shortall has already organised a meeting that is open to all TDs and Senators with leading abortion campaigner Dr Peter Boylan and the Campaign Against Church Ownership of Women’s Healthcare (CACOWH).
The timing of this is hardly a coincidence now that Minister of State Anne Rabbitte has confirmed that the final text of the legal contract underpinning the transfer will be published in the coming weeks.
When this happens it is almost guaranteed to stir up yet another round of media and political hyperventilation where every institutional and historical sin of the Church will be paraded and repeated ad nauseam until even the imaginary thoughts of ‘having a nun about the place’ will fill the general public with horror.
So why are they doing this? What is to be gained?
Surprisingly enough, an insight into the possible motivation of some of those on the political left was provided by the former Minister for Health Simon Harris in 2017.
At the time he was responding to Deputy Brid Smith on questions she had raised about the independence of the new National Maternity Hospital.
No matter how many times Minister Harris assured her that there would be no religious ethos at the site, the deputy would not take yes for an answer.
Eventually Minister Harris gave up and said: “no matter how often I say it, the deputy will never be convinced or accept it because she wants to be in the politics of protest”.
That, I suspect, will be the real and broader agenda at play in the coming weeks.
Political parties and groups with a vested interest in promoting their ‘progressive credentials’ will use the National Maternity Hospital ethos issue, that has long since been resolved, to protest about, and stoke fears around, an imaginary Catholic threat to their vision of what a secular civil society should look like.
It will be a phony war fought against an ‘enemy’ who regrettably is already in serious cultural retreat. But even phony wars can yield victories on other fronts as they can serve to create the impression of strength and courage where none exists.
In other words; by piggybacking on this issue the momentum can be kept going until the final end is achieved; the total isolation of the Church and the religious orders from any aspect of Irish civic life.
We have already seen plenty of evidence for this with respect to education and the drive to effectively criminalise the Catholic understanding of human sexuality.
It might be worth bearing this in mind as we prepare for the upcoming political and media campaigns that will be waged around this issue.