Protecting children


The referendum on children's rights is likely to be adopted by a comfortable majority when votes are counted on Sunday. Any other outcome would mark a step backwards towards a more rigid, forbidding society where children were frequently treated as legal "chattels" within sometimes dysfunctional families. The inclusion of specific rights for vulnerable children in the Constitution will not, of itself, prevent future abuses. But it will exert pressure on ministers, on health services and on children's agencies to improve the quality of childcare and protections now being offered and to help set higher standards. A strong Yes vote would amount to a step forward.

The campaign has been a rather dull affair, lacking the passion and controversy that emerges when issues regarding procreation or sovereignty are debated. It reflects a consensus between political parties at Oireachtas level concerning the need for, and the nature of, the proposed wording, along with overwhelming support from childcare agencies. That consensus was reflected by opinion polls showing overwhelming support for the referendum, though voters were unclear about the proposed changes. Subsequently, the Referendum Commission and a Government information campaign sought to address that knowledge deficit.

In doing so, the Government was found by the Supreme Court to have acted wrongfully in issuing a "misstatement" concerning the effect of the referendum and to have circulated information that was not "fair, equal or impartial". Details will not become available for some weeks, at which time the extent of the Government's miscalculation - or deliberate obtuseness - may become clear. The High Court declared the material to be "neutral and balanced" but the Supreme Court ruled otherwise. The Supreme Court stopped short of making an order requiring the State to rectify the situation and it assumed the Government would cease publishing and distributing the offending material. That has happened.

Yesterday's judgment goes beyond delivering a sharp rebuke to the Government. It confirms the centrality of the McKenna judgment in referendum campaigns and the explicit ban on spending public money to promote a particular outcome. Ministers have made no secret of their unhappiness with this ruling and with its broader application. They are now faced with the prospect of introducing legislation to try to modify its effects in future referendums. A robust, lasting solution needs to be found if referendums are to retain credibility.

Whatever about the difficulties the Government faces in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision, the electorate has more pressing obligations. To strengthen democracy, voters should turn out in large numbers. To support the best interests of children, they should vote Yes.

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