Referendum allows us to tackle a legacy of failure
OPINION:What this referendum does is draw a line in the sand and say that we as a nation believe children have rights, writes FRANCES FITZGERALD
NOT ALL Irish children have been well served by this country. In fact, so pervasive and awful was the mistreatment of some of our vulnerable citizens, that we have become somewhat immune to mention of it. Nationally we have become so emotionally calloused by the reports of suffering and abuse and neglect that many of us are no longer shocked by revelations that should rock us to our core.
We have become used to horror. We have come to accept as reality that which should be nightmare. We know some Irish children were repeatedly raped by those meant to be caring for them. We know some Irish children were deserted and abandoned by those on whom they depended. We know Irish children were starved and tortured by those closest to them. The thing we sometimes forget is that not all of these horrors are relegated to the distant past.
Reports published by and provided to my department often catalogue contemporary stories of abuse, neglect, prejudice, loneliness and deprivation that one cannot read without wishing they belonged to a different era, or country, or society. But they do not. They are our era, our country, and our society.
Only the naive would believe that we can completely eradicate suffering. We can’t. No more than we can eradicate all crime. But as with crime, the fact that perfection is not possible doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it. Particularly when some simple, easily achievable gains can be made.
The changes we are proposing to the Constitution are such steps. A lot can be done and has been done through legislation like Children First, the Withholding of Information Bill and Garda Vetting Bill, and through systemic changes, like creating the new Child and Family Support Agency. But constitutional change is broader and more significant than that. Constitutional change is about making clear what we, as a people, stand for and what we believe. And this constitutional change is about making a clear statement from the people, to legislators, judges and wider society about how children should be treated.
As with all constitutional change, the discussion can range from esoteric analysis of legal terminology through to scaremongering. But at its heart, the change we are recommending is not to be decided by the politicians, lawyers or the sensationalists. It is to be decided by the people – by all our citizens. And shorn of law and sensation, it is a simple change.
It says: we believe that children, if they are mature enough, should be able to express their views in legal proceedings that affect them. For instance if a judge is making a decision involving a mature 16-year-old that judge will be required to ask what the 16-year-old’s views are.
It says: we believe all children are equal. At present the laws relating to adoption are different depending on whether the child to be adopted is born “out of wedlock” or not. That’s an anachronism left over from a past century. All children should be equal.