"THE MEMORY OF JESUS IS BOTH SACRED AND SUBVERSIVE"
Sunday, 30 April 2017
CARDINAL CONNELL INTERFERED IN MATERNITY HOSPITAL
The idea of handing Holles Street over to the Sisters of Charity ‘just breaks my heart’ — Dr Peter Boylan tells Maeve Sheehan
Sunday Independent (Ireland)
Eoin O’Malley is director of the MSc in Public Policy at the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University
ACCORDING TO a story told by Dr Peter Boylan, he and Dr Rhona Mahony were not always so divided on the future of the National Maternity Hospital. Dr Boylan, a former master of the hospital, and Dr Mahony, the current Master who also happens to be his sister-in-law, had offices beside each other in the crumbling Holles Street building.
The plan to move the hospital to a new state-of-theart building co-located on the grounds of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group’s Elm Park campus had started and stalled. St Vincent’s, which is owned by the Religious Sisters of Charity, wanted ownership and ultimate control of the maternity hospital.
St Vincent’s was playing “hardball”, insisting the National Maternity Hospital submitted to ownership and control. “We had a lot of discussions about negotiating with St Vincent’s who were playing very hardball. Minister [Leo] Varadkar was very supportive of the National Maternity Hospital position,” said Dr Boylan. “But then after Simon Harris was appointed [last year], that all seemed to change. Minister Harris, on his first weekend, said: ‘I will deliver this hospital.’ That was all fine. He appointed Kieran Mulvey [a professional mediator].”
Dr Boylan claims that in May last year, Dr Mahony asked him to write to the Minister for Health and to the board of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group “expressing concerns about the nuns’ potential involvement” in the National Maternity Hospital. He says he was asked to write because he was chairman of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
Dr Boylan says he duly wrote the letters. But since the agreement was drawn up last November, he and Dr Mahony are no longer on the same side of the fence. “It would appear her concerns have been allayed by the proposed agreement. Mine have not obviously,” says Dr Boylan.
Dr Mahony denies this ever happened. In a statement to the Sunday Independent, she says she did not ask him to “write to St Vincent’s Hospital or the minister in relation to nuns. The correspondence referenced and other public statements made by the institute at that time were not made on behalf of the hospital and this was made clear publicly at the time”. The statement says she had asked him in his role as chairman of the institute to give his opinion on governance structure being proposed by St Vincent’s, and that was in March last year.
Dr Boylan is in the sunny, book-lined kitchen of his south Dublin home. Harry, the Irish terrier, bounds in after his morning walk with Jane, who is Rhona’s sister.
He insists that his personal and family life is strictly out of bounds. He is friendly and speaks with calm and level delivery, which probably belies the personal toll of this row. He says he never wanted it to become personal, but personal it has become.
He is at the end of a twoweek storm which began with him giving a radio interview expressing his fears about religious interference if the Sisters of Charity are given ownership of the maternity hospital.
Dr Mahony and Nicky Kearns, the National Maternity Hospital’s deputy chairman, shot back, accusing Dr Boylan of spreading inaccuracies and misinformation, and stressing the urgent need for a new building.
Things came to a head last Sunday when Dr Boylan texted Dr Mahony and Kearns, claiming they had been misled by St Vincent’s. Kearns texted back, asking him to resign. He did after last Wednesday’s board meeting when the executive directors overwhelmingly endorsed the terms of agreement — including the obstetricians. Dr Boylan, a Sinn Fein councillor and a Labour Lord Mayor were the only three against. The day after the vote, Dr Boylan resigned.
“What’s in it for me is pressure, stress. You know, the easiest thing would be to say nothing, to go home. It is interfering in my life in a major way. So there is nothing in it for me. This is for women,” he says.
“I spent my entire career trying to make things better for women’s healthcare. To have spent my entire professional life in Holles Street and then to see it given over to the Sisters of Charity just breaks my heart. These are important issues. What has helped me is the overwhelming support from right around the country and abroad. It’s just overwhelming.”
Shortly after he became master of Holles Street in 1991, Dr Boylan was once summoned by Desmond Connell, the late Archbishop, and ordered to stop performing tubal ligations.
“I went up with the matron at the time. We got out of the car and we were shown into a room with Archbishop Connell and I think it was Bishop Moriarty sitting across the table from us. He said: ‘You can’t do tubal ligations.’ I said: ‘We can’.”
He recalls Archbishop Connoll then said: “Well, you’re to stop” — to which he replied: “Well, we’re not.”
Few obstetrician would disagree with Dr Boylan’s view that healthcare should be provided without religious restriction. Where he and Dr Mahony vehemently differ is in whether the terms of agreement that will underpin the relocated hospital in St Vincent’s will ensure religious influence is kept at bay. The terms of agreement — revealed first by the Sunday Independent last weekend — were hotly debated last week.
Under its terms, St Vincent’s will have 100pc ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital at Elm Park. Decisions affecting the hospital’s clinical independence can only be altered with a unanimous decision by the board of directors, plus the agreement of the health minister.
The nuns will own the building and the company but it can only be used as a maternity hospital — they can never sell it or use it as collateral against a loan because the State will have a lien on it. Dr Boylan has gone through it line by line and taken issue with most of it. The question he keeps asking is why do the nuns want to own a hospital that would be required to perform procedures that are at odds with their Catholic ethos?
One source close to the talks insists St Vincent’s requires ownership for the smooth operation of the vast campus at Elm Park — it fears having a separate legal entity on its own grounds could have serious implications for the campus’s future development, by objecting to planning applications, for instance.
Dr Boylan claims St Vincent’s is interested in the €300m it will get on its balance sheet. He claims there’s no reason why the footprint of the hospital could not be transferred into the ownership of the State. As it is, St Vincent’s doesn’t own the Breast Check building on its grounds.
Sources close to the negotiations say that the National Maternity Hospital did raise this in negotiations. St Vincent’s insisted that it was a small, peripheral building on the boundary of the campus that didn’t really impact on its activities. The National Maternity Hospital, on the other hand, would be right at the heart of its campus.
Dr Boylan claims the board’s independence is also “fragile” — a director approved by St Vincent’s will effectively hold the casting vote.
Does he trust any of the provisions in the terms of agreement? He pauses for a second and laughs: “No.”
With the endorsement of the board of the National Maternity Hospital and similar unanimous backing from the board of St Vincent’s last week, the deal appears to be going ahead. The terms of an agreement will be worked into a legal document in the coming weeks, under the auspices of the Department of Health.
Pressure is mounting on Simon Harris — whom Dr Boylan claims sided with St Vincent’s in the talks, enabling it to play hardball — to revisit the issue of ownership.
Sinn Fein will be tabling a motion demanding public ownership of the hospital this week and Micheal Mac Donncha, a Sinn Fein councillor on the NMH’s board who voted against the agreement last week, says: “The ball is now in Simon Harris’s court.”
Dr Boylan hasn’t had much public support from his colleagues. Two former masters, Sam Coulter Smith of the Rotunda and Professor Chris Fitzpatrick at the Coombe, have supported him. Prof Fitzpatrick was on the development board overseeing the National Maternity Hospital move. He resigned that post last Thursday in solidarity with Dr Boylan, describing the arrangement with St Vincent’s as a “forced marriage”.
Dr Coulter Smith told the Sunday Independent that there is no ethical interference in the three maternity hospitals now and that must be maintained. “There is a huge swathe of opinion, a lot of people, who have difficulties with a religious order having ownership of a maternity service. In an ideal world, this would not happen,” he says.
One obstetrician claims that doctors don’t have a great record of challenging the status quo, particularly the HSE and the minister. Dr Boylan says he understands: “A lot of people are reluctant to put their head above the parapet because if they do, the next thing you know you have a lot of journalists ringing you.”
Meanwhile, the wave of public concern continues to gather momentum.
Krysia Lynch, of the Association for the Improvement of Maternity Services Ireland, said the association has been “inundated” with calls from women looking for clarity over the role of the Sisters of Charity in the hospital.
Niall Behan, chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association, told the Sunday Independent it was questionable for publicly funded institutions such as hospitals to have “conscientious objections” about certain services.
The Sisters of Charity could help ease concerns. The order has made no public statement, bar an ambiguous quote obtained by The Irish Times from Sister Agnes Reynolds, a 79-year-old nun who is on the board of the St Vincent’s Group, who declined to say whether her order’s ownership of the maternity hospital would influence medical care.
A Sisters of Charity document dated 2010, which was unearthed by one newspaper last week, makes things clear. It outlines the sisters’ hospital rules: no morning-after pill, no vasectomies, no sterilisations of women; no invitro-fertilisation and a commitment that “life” is to be protected from conception onwards.
The agreement shows no signs of being thrown off course. After a brief wobble on St Vincent’s part, both sides seem more united than ever in driving through the much-needed facility. The cabinet has endorsed it, despite Dr Boylan’s misgivings. Lawyers are poised to begin work on turning the agreement into a legal document.
The argument is no longer just about whether the National Maternity Hospital can offer independent medical care to women on the St Vincent’s campus. It is a broader one of religious influence on taxpayer-funded heath facilities. The National Maternity Hospital’s plans for co-location don’t have to be sacrificed to in this debate. The nuns could relinquish ownership, says Dr Boylan. “That would solve everything.”
‘The easiest thing would be to say nothing, to go home’
IT was Gay Byrne who first brought Simon Harris, until then a young man in an old man’s suit, the quintessential young Fine Gael nerdy-type, into the public imagination.
That was not that long ago, actually — in January 2016. The then 81-year-old Gaybo was just back on RTE’s Lyric FM after an illness, a recuperation which he obviously had spent listening to radio.
He spoke so admiringly of the then 29-year-old Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, who was touring areas affected by flooding at the time, that you began to wonder whether there was something you had missed.
Harris left Gaybo “gasping in admiration”, in fact. Harris was a “smart young cove”; “very, very impressive. He has an answer for everything. He’s afraid of nobody.”
Really, what so impressed Gay Byrne was that Harris was relatively eloquent, in a cognitive or broadcaster-ly fashion: “Because he has a tongue fast enough to stay with his extremely agile mind, there is a never a hesitation when he speaks. It comes out at least 200 words a minute,” said Gaybo, contrasting Harris’s style with unnamed captains of industry who hem and haw their way through Morning Ireland.
Further contrast this, however, with Harris’s ability as a politician, a fully rounded politician that is — as opposed to a young man in a hurry; ability tested and found to be lacking since the ‘Smart Young Cove’ landed in the Department of Health after the last election.
Here are a few facts to be going on with: despite having received an extra €1bn, hospital waiting lists continue to break records every month; the winter initiative of his predecessor, Leo Varadkar, was tried and failed last year, but Harris repeated it this year to equal if not greater abject failure, and progress on free GP care has stalled even though funding is in place for those aged six to 12 years.
With a record like this, his promise to cut scoliosis waiting times to four months by the end of the year seems foolish, at best.
In recent weeks, however, Harris has spent more time on social media attempting to mollify critics of his decision to sign off on the gifting of the proposed new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) to a religious order than on seeking to understand the core of the issues raised.
This is the real problem with Simon. His cognitive abilities are undoubted. Indeed, there are few to match his mental processes of perception, memory and reasoning, but when it comes to emotional intelligence, well, he has always seemed to fall short in that area.
Not that you would notice. The health minister always — repeat, always — passes himself off as having a firm grasp of what we might call the feelings involved in any particular situation, but in a practiced way, as if he knows he has a deficit and then over-compensates.
You may recognise the moment: brow furrowed as though to show understanding, a nod of the head, a reasonable tone and then seek to blame somebody else. The more he practises it, the more transparent it becomes. This is not to say that he lacks empathy, only that he has to dig deep to find it as a politician, and when he does, he primarily presents it in a manner that has stood his career in good stead to date.
And what a stellar career it has been, until now.
In 2002, for example, he canvassed with the then Fianna Fail minister, Dick Roche in Wicklow — in gratitude for assistance for his brother, who has Asperger’s — before jumping ship to Fine Gael, where he supported a family relation, John Bailey, in a fractious and unsuccessful 2007 general election campaign.
His appetite whetted, Harris stuck with Fine Gael, and contested the 2009 local elections in the Greystones area of Wicklow on the back of a pledge to reform the expenses regime at local and national level. He won the highest percentage vote of any councillor in the country, although Wicklow councillors still draw down comfortable expenses, to which they are entitled, of course.
It was not to be the first Harris volte-face, perfectly executed, which would advance his career.
On the eve of the 2011 general election, he wrote to the Pro-Life campaign to state: “I am happy and proud to assure you that I am pro-life.” In answer to direct questions, he stated in writing: “Yes, if elected to the Dail I will oppose any legislation to introduce abortion to Ireland”; and, “Yes, I will support legislation that protects the human embryo from deliberate destruction and I will oppose any legislation that does not.” He needed number one votes “so I can be in a position to support these positions in Dail Eireann”.
However, once elected, and under pressure from the Fine Gael leadership, he said he wanted the right to abortion extended to women whose babies have fatal foetal abnormalities, describing their situation as “appalling”, and he also said he believed a referendum on the Eighth Amendment would probably be required to widen the grounds for abortion to these cases. Abortion is a complex issue and people are entitled to nuance their views. Harris defended his position in an article in the Irish Independent in 2012, stating: “If you think about it, even those terms ‘prolife’ and ‘pro-choice’ are so heavily charged with emotion and persuasion.”
He probably wrote that newspaper article himself, having studied at the Dublin Institute of Technology, where he is stated to have graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism, a course which he himself has never actually said he completed.
In any event, he is now in the firing line at the centre of the NMH row, his undoubted conservative leanings, as evidenced by his proud pro-life position in 2011, under question in relation to the decision to hand over the hospital to the Sisters of Charity.
Former NMH master Dr Peter Boylan has claimed Harris “let St Vincent’s dominate” in the negotiations with the NMH after his appointment as minister. He contrasted his approach with that of Leo Varadkar. “When Leo Varadkar was minister, he put a lot of pressure on St Vincent’s. Then, when Simon Harris came in and appointed Kieran Mulvey as mediator, the pressure on St Vincent’s eased and went on to Holles Street. I think Simon Harris let St Vincent’s dominate.”
In the entire debate, it seems to be lost on many that there is precedent of sorts: to establish the new Children’s Hospital, three voluntary hospitals, including the Sisters of Mercy at Temple Street and the Archbishop of Dublin, at Our Lady’s Hospital in Crumlin, moved to a Stateowned site and gave up their patronage. The board at the Children’s Hospital will be statutory. Similar accommodations were reached at the Adelaide and Meath hospitals and at Beaumont also.
At St Vincent’s, Harris has presided over what has all the appearance of a significant policy backwards step, to co-locate and give ownership to a religious trust and privately appointed board.
Be that as it may, Harris is unlikely to be in the Department of Health for much longer. Indeed, if the Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan is to be believed, the ‘Smart Young Cove’ can not wait to get out.
“He hasn’t announced yet,” said Flanagan in an internal Fine Gael text message in February, in relation to then speculation that Harris intended to throw his hat into the party’s imminent leadership contest. Indeed, Harris has not been shy in publicly expressing a view that his callow youth should not disbar him from being considered to succeed Enda Kenny, to whom he has always made himself close.
“Frances is encouraging him,” Flanagan added, a reference to the almost maternal-like relationship that he is said to have with Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald.
“He wants out of Health,” concluded Flanagan, to the surprise of nobody.
As it turns out, Harris is supporting the leadership nomination of Simon Coveney, with whom he worked closely to put together the minority government, presumably, colleagues say, because he believes Coveney will win.
That said, there is said to have always been a certain animus from Harris towards Leo Varadkar, the other leadership contender, which some liken to a little brother-big brother fraternal relationship. “It’s all a bit weird,” said a source (with emotional intelligence) who has observed both at Cabinet. That said, perhaps the only thing that can be read into Harris’s positioning of himself alongside Coveney is that Fitzgerald does not intend to throw her hat in the ring.
One thing is for certain, though; as the smartest young cove of the lot, Varadkar would never have allowed a situation to arise where the nuns were perceived to have a hold over him and then run scared in the face of a social media backlash, failing to try to explain or even stand his ground.
Should Varadkar actually win the leadership contest, it may be that Simon Harris will finally get to meet himself coming back, the first setback in a political career which has, so far, owed more to expediency than conviction. row that does nothing for public confidence in the country’s maternity services.
Harris could be right that the nuns, or what’s left of them, won’t influence the clinical decisions made in the maternity hospital if it moves to St Vincent’s. And he could be right that the order won’t profit from the location of the hospital. He may have considered that a wholescale reassessment of the Church ownership of where the State delivers those services was beyond his brief.
He wanted to deliver a deal, and such a review was unlikely to build a hospital or to deliver value for money.
But in trying to do the right thing, he forgot about the politics. It is likely he’ll succeed in getting a new maternity hospital, but Simon Harris should learn the lessons from what has been an inglorious political failure.
‘There is said to be a certain animus from Harris towards Leo Varadkar’
PAT SAYS I'm a little bit surprised that more comments have not been made on this blog with regard to the SISTERS OF CHARITY wanting to control Ireland's new National Maternity Hospital. In today's piece above from the Sunday Independent we see that Cardinal Desmond Connell sent for the Master and Matron of the old maternity hospital to interfere in its workings !!! I am VERY CONCERNED about the continued interference of the Catholic Church in Irish political and social life. Nowadays a lot of it is being done SECRETLY. VERY DANGEROUS !!!