Time to cherish all families of the nation equally

Opinion: Is it not ludicrous that in 2013 the Constitution still discriminates against a huge portion of Irish families?

Voting taking place on the issue of same-sex marriage at the Convention on the Constitution last month. Photograph: Eric Luke

Voting taking place on the issue of same-sex marriage at the Convention on the Constitution last month. Photograph: Eric Luke


What a wonderful opportunity Family Day is this Sunday to celebrate the diversity of all families in Ireland and what a stark contrast this is to the narrow definition of family in our Constitution. Building on the UN’s International Day of the Family, we founded Family Day so that all families in Ireland, no matter their size, shape or legal status can be celebrated every year. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are wonderful landmarks in our annual calendars but they don’t work for all children, families or parents.

The UN recognises that the family is the basic unit of society warranting special attention and protection, but what is wonderful about the UN’s approach to family is that it recognises there is a diversity of form and function throughout the world and its definition respects all families: “any combination of two or more persons who are bound together by ties of mutual consent, birth and/or adoption or placement and who, together assume responsibility for, inter alia, the care and maintenance of group members, the addition of new members through procreation or adoption, the socialisation of children and the social control of members”.

How different this is to the Irish Constitution which recognises and affords rights and protection only to families based on marriage. The issue of family was examined by the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution in its Tenth Progress Report on the Family which was published in 2006. Due to fears of divisiveness no recommendations for change were made in relation to a referendum on the definition of the family.

Appetite for change
The Convention on the Constitution gives us a great opportunity to look at articles 41 and 42 which deal with the family. In particular a review of article 41.3.1 would support some of the other issues already being debated at the convention such as same-sex marriage and women’s role in the home. The convention is seeing an appetite for change among its members as well as the public and a review of family would complement the work to date.

When One Family was founded in 1972 as Cherish by a small group of single unmarried mothers, it was revolutionary. It took on every aspect of the State as children were routinely taken from unmarried parents for adoption, parents were thrown out of their homes by their families or landlords, summarily dismissed from jobs and deemed by society to be immoral.

Our founder, Maura O’Dea, remembers those early days and what motivated her to establish an organisation to help other unmarried women who wanted to keep their children: “Nearly 40 years ago I told a grandmother ‘that her grandchild would not be handicapped because his parents were not married’. I said this with utter conviction. How could I believe then that the Irish Constitution, unholy in its treatment of families, could still in spite of all efforts to change it, maintain its iron grip on the diverse and complex lives of families in Ireland?”

Dereliction of duty
A long battle was fought throughout the 1970s and 1980s to abolish the concept of illegitimacy. The notion of illegitimacy may seem ludicrous to us now, but why is it not ludicrous that in 2013 the Constitution still discriminates against a huge portion of Irish families? There are real consequences for this dereliction of duty in how laws are interpreted, policies enforced and how parents and children feel and are treated by the rest of society. At a time in Ireland of unprecedented family change and diversity, wouldn’t it be the mark of a mature society to welcome and honour children in all their families, whether that is in a one-parent family, an unmarried family, a traditional two-parent married family, a same-sex family, step-family, foster family or any of the myriad other loving and stable homes that children grow up in?

What is important in family is the work of family-ing which is based on mutual respect, support and ultimately love. This nation and our organisation were founded on the principle of “cherishing all the children of the nation equally” and it is high time for our outdated Constitution to reflect the realities of family life in Ireland.

Family Day will be celebrated in the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin on Sunday from 11am to 5pm. familyday.ie

Karen Kiernan is chief executive of One Family, which offers support, information and services to one-parent families.

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