Minister for Health Simon Harris has described as historic the decision by the Religious Sisters of Charity to relinquish ownership of three hospitals; St Vincent's University Hospital in Dublin, St Vincent's Private and St Michael's.

The move by the Sisters of Charity follows controversy over the proposed ownership of the planned new National Maternity Hospital on the St Vincent's Hospital campus.

Mr Harris said the announcement was a very significant development for the healthcare sector.

He described the developments as "truly historic" and said he really hoped they had addressed people's concerns.

A new company with charitable status is to be formed, called St Vincent's. It is to replace the Sisters of Charity as the shareholders in the St Vincent's Healthcare Group.

The sisters will no longer have the right to appoint directors to the board of the group.

Asked whether he could clarify if the new National Maternity Hospital would be owned by the State or a charity, Minister Harris this afternoon said it is his understanding that the hospital will be owned by a charitable organisation.

St Vincent's will still own the new National Maternity Hospital building planned for its campus, as per the agreement mediated by Kieran Mulvey between the NMH and St Vincent’s Hospital Group last November.

Mr Harris said people had had concerns that there would be religious interference and that what is happening today by the Sisters of Charity completely withdrawing is that the Government is making it very clear that the hospital will operate 100% in accordance with the laws of the Republic of Ireland and the St Vincent's charter will be changed to reflect that.

The current requirement of the healthcare group to conduct and maintain SVHG facilities in accordance with the Catholic code will be amended, to reflect compliance with national and international best practice guidelines on medical ethics and the laws of the Republic of Ireland.

The Sisters of Charity's two representatives on the current board will resign with immediate effect.

The sisters' shares will be transferred to St Vincent's for a "nominal consideration".

The SVHG said today the Religious Sisters of Charity's involvement in healthcare had been under review for several years.

Given recent controversies, it decided to bring forward the announcement to relinquish ownership of their three hospitals.

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James Menton, chairman of SVHG, said the Sisters of Charity also see the need for the proposed development of the new National Maternity Hospital and want to do everything possible to ensure the vital facility is developed as quickly as possible.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Six One, Mr Menton said today's decision by the Sisters of Charity to give up the ownership of three Dublin hospitals had been under review since the setting up of the current board two and ahlf years ago.

He said when he first joined the board of SVHG the Sisters of Charity had already "begun a conversation" about the strategic direction of the group.

He said it would be "dangerous to conflate the decision of the sisters today exclusively and solely with the National Maternity Hospital project.

St Vincent's will initially have a transition board for a maximum of a year during the change.

The Department of Health earlier said it is continuing to engage with the St Vincent's Healthcare Group and the National Maternity Hospital in relation to the project. 

Mr Harris is due to update the Government on the project next week.

Fianna Fáil Health Spokesperson Billy Kelleher broadly welcomed the move by the Sisters of Charity group, saying it was the "right decision".

Speaking on RTÉ's Drivetime, Mr Kelleher said the issue of clinical governance, oversight and independence has been addressed, but he would like more detail on the ownership of the hospital.

Boylan says decision is 'noble' but clarity needed

Former master of the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street, Dr Peter Boylan, described the move by the Sisters of Charity as "the noble and correct thing to do".

Dr Boylan said it is time to move and get the new hospital built and ensure that there is absolutely no question whatsoever of any outside influence, or any question of the religious sisters being put in a position where, he said, they were owning a hospital which was conducting work which was so fundamentally opposed to their beliefs.

He said a majority of his concerns regarding the new maternity hospital have been alleviated but that a few things need to be straightened out.

Dr Boylan said the first is the structure of the charity that is being formed, to ensure it is not what is known as a "public juridic person".

This is a structure, he said, which Roman Catholic organisations use to divest themselves of land and property and its structure obeys canon law as opposed to State law.

If the charity is such a structure, he said, he would be extremely concerned as it would be subject to canon law and not State law. He said clarity is needed on this issue.

Dr Boylan also said he thinks that the structure of the board of the new hospital has to be properly constructed so that there are a greater number of National Maternity Hospital representatives on the board.

He said he believed that St Vincent's needs to have representation, as it is on their campus, but nothing like what was proposed to initially.

Dr Boylan also said the master of the NMH needs to report to the board of the NMH not to the Vincent’s Hospital Group Clinical Director.

In a statement this morning, Sr Mary Christian, Congregational Leader of the Religious Sisters of Charity, said: "The Religious Sisters of Charity will end our involvement in St Vincent's Healthcare Group and will not be involved in the ownership or management of the new National Maternity Hospital.

"For the last two years we have been actively working to find the best way to relinquish our shareholding
of the St Vincent's Healthcare Group (SVHG). It includes three hospitals; St Vincent's University Hospital, St Vincent's Private Hospital and St Michael's Hospital, Dún Laoghaire.

"Although the Sisters of Charity no longer have any direct involvement in the provision of healthcare services we remain dedicated to preserving the legacy of Mary Aikenhead, whose mission in life was to heal and care for the sick and poor.

"We believe that the future continued success of SVHG can best be ensured by our transferring ownership of the group to a newly formed company with charitable status to be called St Vincent's. The Religious Sisters of Charity will have no involvement in this new company."

Mr Menton said: "These are major developments, and reflect the wonderful legacy to Irish healthcare of the Sisters of Charity.

"The sisters have always held the highest ambitions for the provision of world class healthcare services in Ireland and have successfully achieved and sustained this.

"They also see the need for the proposed development of the new National Maternity Hospital integrated within the Elm Park campus and want to do everything possible to ensure this vital facility for mothers and babies is developed as quickly as possible."

In a statement, the Association of Leaders of Missionaries and Religious of Ireland said that it "fully supports" the decision by the Sisters of Charity. 

The AMRI also welcomed the "clarification that they [the Sisters of Charity] will not be involved in the ownership or management of the new National Maternity Hospital.".

It said: "We take this opportunity to thank and compliment the outstanding contribution of the Religious Sisters of Charity to healthcare and other services in Ireland over the best part of the last two centuries.

NMH Master Rhona Mahony and Chairman Nicholas Kearns also welcomed the news.

They said that throughout the mediation process "it was our clear understanding that the nuns never sought to exercise clinical control over the Hospital and that the independent ethos of the new National Maternity Hospital would be preserved on relocation to the SVHG campus".

They acknowledged the "outstanding contribution of the Sisters of Charity to Irish Healthcare over so many years", adding that they "would also like to acknowledge the support of the Minister, Simon Harris, and the Department of Health and our own board and staff in being so steadfast during this process."

AIMSI Ireland, which represents maternity service users,  welcomed the fact that there has been a change of heart and that the Sisters of Charity are going to relinquish their control over the SVHG.  

Speaking to RTÉ News, AIMSI chairperson Krysia Lynch said, however, that it was unclear how the members of the board would be appointed, what exercise the Government and State would have over the new company, and who the new charitable company would report to.