Time to honour a forgotten vow to the nation's children
The children’s rights referendum is a chance to fulfil our abandoned promise
At the heart of the failure of our Republic there is a forgotten promise to children. In January 1919, when the first Dáil assembled in Dublin, it adopted the Democratic Programme. It makes a startling and moving declaration: “It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter.”
The children referred to here are not the mystical “children of the nation” evoked in the proclamation of 1916. They are actual, flesh-and-blood kids with bodies that really do suffer from malnourishment and cold and minds and souls that are starved and frozen in other ways.
What a wonderful thing for a new republic to say – that, whatever else we do, we’re going to make a place in which the wellbeing of children will be everybody’s first concern. And how horribly that commitment was not just forgotten but travestied.
What actually happened was beyond irony: one child in every hundred condemned to slavery and abuse in an industrial school; thousands of babies exported to the United States as unwanted surplus; thousands more tagged as “illegitimate” and therefore shameful; and hundreds of thousands stunted by poverty and neglect.
If you were lucky enough to have loving, stable parents and not to be poor, Ireland was indeed a great place to be a child. But it was the luck of the draw – if the circumstances of birth dealt you a bad hand, tough.
For the framers of the Democratic Programme turned out to be exactly right – if the first duty of a republic is to the wellbeing of all children, the failure to take that aspiration seriously was the ultimate mark of the failure of the republic itself. The disappearance of children in the 1937 Constitution said something very profound about the nature of the State.
This is why the children’s rights referendum isn’t some annoying distraction from the daily miseries of our imploded Republic. Had we followed up on the promise of 1919 and seriously set about making a society with the welfare of children at its heart, we would not be where we are now.
We would have had a clear sense of values and priorities, a benchmark against which to measure the ways in which we were reacting to change. This should have been both our anchor and our lodestar, the principle that connected the State to real lives and the aspiration that kept it moving in the right direction. Instead, we drifted and ran aground. Conversely, rededicating ourselves to the idea of prioritising the welfare of children should be our way to set ourselves back on course.
There is one kind of reluctance to vote Yes in the referendum that is perfectly understandable. I recently met a couple whose autistic son returned to school to find that, without any consultation, his special needs assistant had simply been withdrawn.
Then, after they were effectively forced to take him out of school, his mother’s carer’s allowance was withdrawn because someone, without any assessment, had decided that he is “cured” and no longer in need of help. The boy’s parents are voting No and I don’t blame them – the idea that the State can’t wait to vindicate their son’s rights is, for them, a bitter joke. But a No vote won’t do anything to help them either.