U.S. Markets close in 2 hrs 29 mins

In Ireland, a children's hospital goes over budget by hundreds of millions

Edmund Heaphy
Ireland Correspondent
Irish health minister Simon Harris faces a no-confidence motion on Wednesday. Pic: PA

For the past few weeks, the Irish government has been in a constant state of explanation — not about its unwavering approach to Brexit, but about hundreds of millions of euros in cost overruns for the country’s new national children’s hospital.

On Wednesday evening, health minister Simon Harris will face a motion of no-confidence, with the opposition Sinn Féin party arguing that he failed to inform Irish parliament about the spiralling costs in a timely manner.

Harris will survive the motion thanks to the support of Fianna Fáil, which props up prime minister Leo Varadkar’s minority government.

Though the €420m (£368m) overspend has absolutely nothing to do with Brexit, Fianna Fáil’s reasons for backing Harris have a lot to do with it.

The party’s finance spokesman, Michael McGrath, said that supporting the motion of no-confidence — something that would likely trigger a general election — would be akin to “national sabotage.”

Noting the party’s December commitment to support the government for the entirety of 2019, McGrath said Fianna Fáil was “determined to ensure that that stability remains in place through the Brexit process.”

READ MORE: How the Tory Brexit chaos brought Irish politics a year of stability

Others, however, think that this so-called stability is verging on paralysis.

On Tuesday, Labour party leader Brendan Howlin went so far as to suggest that the dysfunction of Westminster was “migrating here.”

“It’s a very worrying situation for all of us who depend on parliament to be the watchdog of the people,” he said.

Labour will not support Harris in this evening’s vote.

The hospital has been mooted for the better part of a decade. In 2014, it was estimated that the project — which will bring Ireland’s three existing children’s hospitals together — would cost around €800m.

In April 2017, the Irish government approved a €983m construction budget. But in the space of just two years, estimated costs have risen to €1.43bn (£1.25bn), with the country’s health ministry now saying that it could cost more than €1.7bn when equipment and IT-related costs are taken into account.

To cap it all off, a key parliamentary committee heard earlier this month that it was “highly unlikely” that the project would end up costing less than €2bn.

“It may turn out to be one of the most expensive children’s hospitals in the world but it is also going to turn out to be one of the best,” Varadkar said in December.

But like many political controversies, the one enveloping the country’s health minister is centred on what he knew, when he knew it, and who he told.

Documents released by his ministry show that Harris was informed in August 2018 that the cost of building the hospital would overrun by almost €200m, and that the construction company could seek a further €200m.

But Varadkar and the Irish finance minister, Paschal Donohoe, were not informed about the spiralling costs until November.

On Friday, Harris formally apologised to the lower house of Irish parliament for failing to provide it with the full details of cost overruns when he was asked about the hospital in September, saying he was “not [then] in a position to give commercially sensitive figures.”

Sinn Féin called the apology “feeble.” In announcing that the party would bring forward a motion of no-confidence in Harris, it made clear that it was not seeking a general election.

“We are simply seeking the removal of this incompetent minister who is charged with managing a budget of over €17bn,” said leader Mary Lou McDonald.