The Minister for Health has said there must be "no question of religious interference" with the new National Maternity Hospital. 

Simon Harris made the statement after a protest was held outside the Department of Health in Dublin over the ownership of the new hospital, which is to be built on the campus of St Vincent's Hospital.

It has emerged that the Religious Sisters of Charity is to be given ownership of the €300m taxpayer-funded hospital because it owns the land on which it is to be built.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Six One, Mr Harris said: "I want to make sure that no religious order makes one cent from this move."

The minister said a lien will be put on the building to ensure it cannot be sold; cannot be used for a loan, and cannot be used for any other purpose other than maternity care.

Minister Harris said he has written to the Health Service Executive to make sure the State's interest is fully protected.

He added that there will be more safeguards in this new maternity hospital than the current maternity hospital at Holles Street.

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Artist impression of new National Maternity Hospital at St Vincent's

In a statement earlier, Mr Harris said that "three key criteria must be in place" before the project proceeds beyond the planning stage.

Those criteria are: that the "hospital must be developed in line with best international practice for maternity hospitals and co-located with an adult acute hospital"; that the "hospital must have clinical, operational and financial independence, with no question of religious interference"; and that "the State's financial and public health interest in this hospital must be fully protected."

With regard to the final point, Mr Harris said no private entity or religious order can profit in any way from the hospital.

He added that he has met with the Director General of the HSE and requested that these criteria are met before any contracts are entered into.

Mr Harris also rejected allegations that nuns from the Sisters of Charity will be running the hospital and that the order has been gifted the hospital.

Protest held over hospital ownership

Around 200 people took part in today's demonstration outside the Department of Health, which was organised by the Workers' Party.

At the protest Kathy Shields of the Abortion Rights Campaign said the decision was patronising and dismissive, while Workers' Party Councillor Éilis Ryan said the Church needed to get out of women's health once and for all.

Redress a separate issue - Reilly

Former minister for Health James Reilly said he believes the arrangement with the Sisters of Charity will guarantee the independence of the medical practitioners.

Speaking on RTÉ's Drivetime, Mr Reilly said the religious order will not have any remit, saying ownership of a building is no reflection of what is going to happen in the building. 

The Fine Gael Senator said a new maternity hospital is needed and there is now an opportunity to progress. 

He said there will not be a question of the hospital not providing procedures that are legal in Ireland.

Mr Reilly added that the issue of redress is a separate but serious issue, saying the Sisters of Charity should "do their duty".

Minister Harris said order "owe the state money and they should cough up."

But he said the issue of ownership and redress should not be conflated.

This was an agreement reached between two voluntary hospitals, he said, and the Department of Health is involved looking after the taxpayers' interest. 

Minister Harris said the St Vincent's Hospital Group is providing an extraordinary valuable site for a health facility.

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Earlier today, the Master of the National Maternity Hospital Dr Rhona Mahony said she is happy with the deal reached to move the hospital to the grounds of St Vincent's.

She said: "There is a triple-lock in place to guarantee absolute autonomy and independence of the clinical services we deliver."

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Sean O'Rourke, Dr Mahony said this includes the retention of the mastership system, an entirely independent board dedicated to the provision of maternity, gynaecological and neonatal services, and an independent company to run the facility.

Dr Mahony said she was shocked at suggestions by former master Dr Peter Boylan that nuns would run the hospital.

This was not true, she said, and added that the services currently provided by the NMH would be continued. 

This included, she said, the provision of contraception and carrying out of abortions under the Protection of Life Act.

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Dr Boylan this morning said it is "inappropriate" for the State to invest taxpayers' money into a new maternity hospital that would have a strong religious influence.

He said he fully supports the current master of Holles Street in the need for the new facility, but said the ownership "structure is completely wrong".

Sr Agnes of the Sisters of Charity, he said, appeared to be speaking on behalf of the hospital in an article in The Irish Times today, even though no agreement has been reached with the governors of the new hospital.

He also said that she was unable to say if they would influence medical care, and Dr Boylan believes that is typical of what can be expected in future.

The Minister of Health will have a "golden share" in the hospital, but that does not alleviate Dr Boylan's concerns. He asked why the minister felt he needed to have a "golden share".

Dr Boylan added that we do not know who is going to be the health minister in the future and it could be someone conservative who could turn the whole thing around and deny women care that they need.

It's just not right that a maternity hospital in 2017 in Ireland, 100 years after the foundation of the State, should be transferred from the governance of the maternity hospital to the religious orders of the Sisters of Charity

Dr Boylan said while the order owned the land, there should have been no problem with the State building a hospital on it.

He said he believes Holles Street was backed into a corner by Minister for Health Simon Harris who said this is the deal, you can have the hospital but the nuns will own it, and the company that runs it. That is not an acceptable deal, he said.

Dr Boylan said the chink of light is that the governors of the new National Maternity Hospital have not been consulted on this, and Minister Harris could respond to the public outrage.

This is 2017, it's Ireland. Can we not grow up and just stop this from going on, of handing over State assets to a religious order. A maternity hospital being given to the nuns? Come on.

Mothers and children deserve 'best possible care'

Dr Mahony said it is a disgrace that the country's maternity hospitals were in such poor repair, saying that mothers and children deserve the best possible care.

She said she operates in a hospital that delivers over 9,000 babies a year and that cares for the sickest women and children in a facility that was never meant to be a hospital and is "totally unsuitable".

The ownership of the land was not her concern, Dr Mahony said, and added that the nuns cannot sell or control the new National Maternity Hospital when it is built.

The design of the new hospital will ensure that every patient has their own room and bathroom, she added.

National Maternity Hospital Chairperson Nicholas Kearns said he is very surprised at the controversy surrounding the building of the new facility.

Mr Kearns said he is satisfied, as a solicitor, that the arrangements in place for the hospital's independence are legally water-tight and sound.

Magdalene group uncomfortable with religious involvement

A spokesperson for the Magdalene Survivors Together group said people are uncomfortable with the idea of the Sisters of Charity Order still being involved in medical or maternity services operating in Ireland.

Steven O'Riordan said the order has never really acknowledged the injustice to the Magdalene women or fully committed to paying the full amount of money to industrial school survivors.

He said the State should not allow the religious order to remain involved, in any way, with the new maternity hospital when it was aware of the treatment that women and children had suffered in the past.

Mr O'Riordan said the Magdalene women believe there should be a complete separation of church and State, and having the religious order involved gives out the wrong impression.

Yesterday, the mediator in negotiations about relocating the hospital said monies owed by the Religious Sisters of Charity to a redress scheme did not feature during discussions to move the hospital to the St Vincent's Hospital campus.

Dr Mahony this morning said: "If this does not go ahead, and if we're going to mix this really important critical development for women with redress scheme, are we going to punish women further in this country by actually interfering and getting in the way of building a hospital that is so urgently needed for women?"

Answers need over ownership and ethos - Shortall

Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall said the question of ownership and ethos of the new maternity hospital are two critical questions and answers are needed.

Speaking on RTÉ's News At One, she said it is very hard to understand why the Sisters of Charity should have any role whatsoever in the governance of the new NMH, which is being funded by the State.

She said a lot of this could be dealt with if Mr Harris was prepared to come out and make a statement on the matter but, critically, also if he was prepared to make public the terms of the agreement that was reached behind closed doors last November.

She said this is the least that the public is entitled to.