Last week the Irish Minister for Health Simon Harris announced that an order of nuns, the Sisters of Charity, would be given sole ownership of the new €300 million state-of-the-art National Maternity Hospital in Dublin by the Irish government.

But the look of shocked surprise on Harris’ face when confronted with intense public outrage over the decision was the surprise of Ireland’s 19th century political model colliding hard against the 21st.

Recall that in 2009 the Ryan report into sexual abuse in Ireland’s state-funded, church-run institutions (which cost the Irish taxpayer €82 million) exposed decades of abuse and cruelty directed at children in the care of Catholic organizations, including the Sisters of Charity.

Now we are told the same Sisters of Charity will be “the sole owners” of the Irish taxpayer-funded facility. For critics, the government’s latest decision beggars belief. It’s a move so insupportable, so indifferent to the lessons of history that it demonstrates Fine Gael has learned precisely nothing from the raft of government commissioned reports into decades of abuse, cruelty and neglect at these religious order run facilities.

The Sisters of Charity famously ran five residential schools and Magdalene Laundries where, studies have concluded, Irish girls were often abused, and where women worked unpaid while being treated like petty criminals, with many incarcerated for life.

Protest at Irish government buildings after the horrors of Tuam emerged.

Protest at Irish government buildings after the horrors of Tuam emerged.

After the investigations the Sisters of Charity have refrained from offering a general, public apology for the documented abuse, instead promising in 2009 to contribute €5 million to the Irish government’s €1.25 billion redress scheme to the victims. By 2017 they have contributed just €2 million to the scheme.

Magdalene Laundries, critics agree, were institutions whose main aim was the control of women and children. Why, critics ask, would a maternity ward controlled by the same order of nuns be any different?

Why would the Irish government, after receiving decades of damning multi-million euro reports, decide the only path to take was for closer integration of church and state?

Harris sought to calm fears after the announcement last week, but the fact that he had even considered giving ownership to the order was sufficient to incense voters.

Posing with a model of the new maternity hospital: Project Chief Operating Officer Kay Connolly, Minister for Health Simon Harris, and Dr Rhona Mahony Master.

Posing with a model of the new maternity hospital: Project Chief Operating Officer Kay Connolly, Minister for Health Simon Harris, and Dr Rhona Mahony Master.

A poll of 1,000 people conducted this week on behalf of the Irish current affairs program "Claire Byrne Live" bluntly asked respondents: Do you believe assurances given by the minister for health that there will be no Catholic influence over medical procedures at the planned new maternity hospital at St. Vincent’s?

Twenty-three percent of those polled said that they believed Harris’ assurances, but an extraordinary 62 percent of people said they did not.

Fully 86 percent of those polled said they believed that the Catholic Church should have no role in maternity services at all. The public consensus was clear-cut.

Meanwhile, the former master of the National Maternity Hospital, Dr. Peter Boylan, has been urged to resign from the board of the hospital by the deputy chairman Nicholas Kearns.

Boylan has attacked the decision to grant the Sisters of Charity ownership of the new hospital because it owns the land where the hospital is being built.  What this means is that an expert in maternity care is being asked to resign for expressing his opinion on maternity care.  How does this bode well for the hospital’s impartiality?

Parents for Choice protest the maternity hospital this week.

Parents for Choice protest the maternity hospital this week.

In a statement to the Sunday Times this weekend, Bishop Kevin Doran confirmed the new maternity hospital would follow religious teaching when deciding medical treatment. “Any healthcare organization bearing the name Catholic, while offering care to all who need it, has a special responsibility… to Catholic teachings about the value of human life and the dignity and the ultimate destiny of the human person,” he said.

It seems that Harris felt the “silent majority” in the country would tacitly support the government’s decision about ownership of the €300 million facility. His surprise when the decision blew up in their faces must have been considerable.

Having honed their political muscle in a political model that has worked for decades, from the foundation of the state in fact, it must come as a particular surprise to have those same muscles atrophy in the age of social media and real-time Internet activism.

Over 80,000 people have already signed a petition calling for the Sisters of Charity to relinquish ownership of the hospital. Meanwhile, Harris says he understands there is an urgent need for a new state-of-the-art facility for mothers and children, so he should also understand that decades of the documented mistreatment of mothers and children makes the religious order’s involvement in this facility ridiculous.

Read more: What you should know about mother and baby homes in Ireland

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