Wording of children's rights referendum is published

Wed, Sep 19, 2012, 01:00

The Government today published the wording of the children’s rights amendment to the Constitution.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald briefed Opposition leaders on the wording in meetings this morning, with a view to achieving all-party consensus.

The wording of the proposed amendment to the Constitution agreed at Cabinet yesterday – and announced today – would, if approved by the electorate, affirm the rights of the child and allow the State, in exceptional circumstances, to take the place of parents.

The referendum will take place on Saturday, November 10th, the Taoiseach has said.

At a news conference in Government Buildings this morning, Mr Kenny said children in Ireland had to be “seen and not heard” for too long, but there was now an opportunity to change that in the referendum.

The wording is based on the “core principles” of the text published by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children in February 2010.

It contains a number of elements in a single article. The first element recognises the natural and imprescriptible rights of children.

The second is similar to the current article 42.5, which the amendment proposes to delete, relating to the State supplying the role of the family in exceptional cases. It makes clear this intervention can take place irrespective of parents’ marital status.

The third element provides for the adoption of children whose parents, again irrespective of marital status, have failed for a period of time prescribed by law in their responsibility. It will also allow for voluntary placement for adoption, meaning married parents can consent for the first time to having their children placed for adoption.

The fourth part says the best interests of the child must be a “paramount” consideration in judicial and custody proceedings. The fifth element says in such proceedings the views of children must be heard and taken into account, having regard to the child’s age and maturity.

“It is nearly 20 years since Judge Catherine McGuinness first called for constitutional change of this nature, in her report on the Kilkenny Incest Case,” Ms Fitzgerald said this morning. “Since then, successive governments have discussed the issue, made promises, examined options, set up committees; but today, after 17 reports detailing child protection failings, this Government is acting.

“Since taking office my department and I have been working with the Attorney General to make the transition from an Oireachtas Committee proposal, to a robust Constitutional wording.

“Today I am publishing the 31st Amendment to the Constitution Bill and on Saturday November 10th we will hold one of the most significant referenda in the history of the state. We will put forward a proposed amendment which would represent a major and historic change. This Amendment proposes to include a new standalone article in our Constitution, Article 42A, titled ‘Children’.

She said the debate on the referendum must not belong solely to constitutional lawyers or politicians. “This is a debate for all of us. The Government will explain why this referendum is needed, what it will change and how it will improve the lives of Ireland’s children, in particular our most vulnerable.”

At a briefing in Government Buildings, the Minister rejected suggestions that the amendment was a charter to break up the family.

She insisted children could only be taken away from their parents in exceptional cases and said the reforms were intended to be preventative, and to ensure they are protected. “But we have to recognise that children can suffer in families and it’s about a strong proportionate response,” she said.

Ms Fitzgerald said the reforms were not intended to allow the Government to intervene with families and put children with parents in care. “There is no evidence in Ireland through our courts or our services that there is a huge wish to move the situations where many more children are in care,” she said.

Ms Fitzgerald said the Government would work hard to support families where problems had been identified to prevent this from happening.

Mr Kenny said he was hopeful of cross-party support for the amendment. “The extensive time and energy put into making and enforcing these new laws reflects the priority the Government attaches to child protection,” he said. “These reforms will be both substantial and sustaining for the next generation.”

Mr Kenny announced the Chief Justice had appointed Mrs Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan to head the Referendum Commission. He said the Government is committed to ensuring that the Irish people have all the information they need to make an informed decision on the vote. "To that end, there will be a well-resourced Referendum Commission along with a comprehensive Government information campaign," he said.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said the referendum was “about ensuring that we can protect children, in the exceptional cases when that protection is needed”.

This is an extremely important amendment, he said. "Childhood only happens once. And on November 10th, we have an opportunity to decide that every childhood is precious, and that every child is deserving of our protection and care."

In addition to the referendum wording, Ms Fitzgerald has also published the Draft Adoption (Amendment) Bill.

“It sets out in detail how we propose to address the issues of voluntary placement, the adoption of children in foster care as a result of serious and persistent parental failure, and the role of the High Court in deciding on such matters.” she said.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) said that, at first reading, it was “broadly satisfied” with the wording, but questioned the apparent exemption of State agencies from the requirement to consider the voice of the child when proceedings are taken against them.

“Frances Fitzgerald’s wording appears to restrict the right of child to have his/her voice heard to proceedings brought by the State," said

ICCL director Mark Kelly. "Is the Minister really proposing that children should be seen but not heard in proceedings brought against the State and its agencies?”

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