What's the Government Got Against Public Ownership?

Andy Storey

Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).


Will the new national maternity hospital, to be owned by the Sisters of Charity via the St Vincent’s Hospital Group, operate independently of Catholic doctrine?

The master of the current facility at Holles Street, Rhona Mahony, independent.ie/irish-news/health/national-maternity-hospital-explainer-the-nuns-the-300m-in-taxpayers-money-and-the-suddenlyquiet-health-minister-35638449.html">says it will. One of her predecessors, Peter Boylan, is, however, far from independent.ie/irish-news/health/national-maternity-hospital-explainer-the-nuns-the-300m-in-taxpayers-money-and-the-suddenlyquiet-health-minister-35638449.html">convinced.

Boylan poses the obvious question: “Are we seriously expected to believe … it will be the only maternity hospital in the world owned by the Catholic Church … that will allow … procedures” including abortion, sterilisation, and contraception?

Tens of thousands of people have signed a protest petition on the issue. [Editor’s note: the petition had 92,760 signatures when this column was published.]

The Sisters of Charity receive a independent.ie/opinion/columnists/sarah-carey/maternity-hospital-row-should-be-over-money-not-the-politics-of-fertility-35645819.html">reported €1.2 million a year in rent on St Vincent’s at a time when they may still owe the state €3 million under the redress scheme for abuse that occurred in the industrial schools they ran. (The order claims they have indirectly paid this bill by waiving their legal costs).

They also ran notorious Magdalene laundries, for abuses at which they have point-blank refused to pay anything at all by way of redress. The Magdalene Survivors Together group has registered their “deep anger and absolute shock” at the maternity hospital decision.

But how did we ever end up in a situation whereby a state-built hospital has, in effect, been given away to a private organisation, even if it were one with a squeaky-clean historical record? How is it possible, as Sarah Carey, independent.ie/opinion/columnists/sarah-carey/maternity-hospital-row-should-be-over-money-not-the-politics-of-fertility-35645819.html">asks, that “the State is about to spend €300m on a hospital it won’t own”?

Nor, as Carey notes, is this an isolated case. Holles Street is owned by a private trust chaired (nominally at least) by the archbishop of Dublin.

Over the last decade, the state has spent €266 million on the Mater Hospital, which remains fully owned by the Sisters of Mercy (and which, because of its Catholic ethos, will not supply women with the contraceptive pill).

Carey goes on to argue that there is not much to be done about all this, in the short term, asking rhetorically, “Are we willing to buy them out or force some kind of nationalisation?”

Well, why not?

This certainly is the position argued by economist Paul Sweeney, who documents the wider nature of the problem, impacting as it does on most schools and hospitals in the country – largely built and maintained by the state but given away for free to religious orders.

Yes, the orders may often have supplied the land, but that would entitle them to rent – not to ownership and management of the buildings and facilities.

Sweeney makes the case that “All public assets which were given away to the religious for nothing, amounting to tens of billions, should be taken back into public ownership”. This seems eminently reasonable.

But the idea would run up against a seemingly deep-seated ideological hostility to the very principle of public ownership.

This also bedevils attempts to resolve, for example, the housing crisis – the government remains religiously wedded to private provision of housing for private ownership despite the fact that public provision for rent would be a vastly more efficient approach.

Meanwhile, Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar has just announced a new crackdown on alleged dole fraud, noting that “Nothing upsets people more than someone else cheating the system at their expense”.

But, in reality, it is only the little cheats who are targeted. Pocket a dole payment you are not entitled to and you can expect to feel the full force of the law – pocket a hospital built at public expense and you will be laughing all the way to the bank.

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Andy Storey: Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).

Reader responses

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John Colgan
at 26 April 2017 at 14:03

I’m convinced this and other matters, eg, handling of schools, esp. community schools, through agreements rather than legislation and regulations is to (a) prevent public access to the agreements and scrutiny of them in Parliament or the Courts for Constitutionality at the President’s behest and (b) to endow and or enrich the Catholic Church using any ruse to do so. Who can recite what the agreement was to provide the Elm Park site for the current St Vincent’s Hospital by the FF Government of which Dr Noel Browne was Minister for Health? Few if any know the nature of any agreement, so it can’t be appraised for compliance etc. The nonsense of 99.5% public funding of hospitals which religious or any private organization) “owns” should end, if need be through a Constitutional change.

John Colgan
at 26 April 2017 at 22:53

Ownership of land would put the owners in the position of ground landlords and not entitled to dictate how a business is run. Besides if the State bought school sites, or hospital sites, at the outset, why would compo’ be payable? An elegant way of getting money from religious bodies is to end the charitable status, ‘advancing religion’ as a ground for such status. In any case, it would appear that this ground is effectively discrimination on ground of religious status, and constitutes endowment of religion by the rest of us – both grounds being specifically unconstitutional.

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