Referendum allows us to tackle a legacy of failure

Tue, Oct 16, 2012, 01:00

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.

It says: we believe that when a child is being starved, or beaten, or burned or physically or sexually abused social workers should be able to intervene to stop that.

It says: in essence, that children in Ireland have rights. That the State will recognise those rights. And that we will do everything we can to protect those rights.

Will that change the lives of Irish children? It is an important symbolic change with strong, practical impact. Change also comes from legislation, administration and resources.

What this referendum also does is draw a line in the sand. It allows us to leave behind us a legacy of failure. It allows us to say as a nation that we believe children have rights, just like everyone else. It allows us to set the legislature and judiciary on a different path than that which has pertained for decades.

It is unsurprising to some extent that the debate around the referendum is tending to focus on the legal and on the extreme because, shorn of semantics and sensationalism, the debate hinges on one central issue; do we, the people of Ireland, believe our children have rights we should protect?

I believe we do, NGOs like Barnardos, the ISPCC, the Children’s Rights Alliance and EPIC believe we do.

If you believe that, then vote Yes. We can argue about funding, we can argue about process, we can argue about systems, we can argue about services. Those are arguments for legislation. They are the arguments that are the stock-in-trade of the political system and they are arguments that will continue forever as the Dáil balances the needs of the people with the resources at hand.

The Constitution is not part of those arguments. Rather it defines the parameters of them. So if you want future generations of politicians and judges to be guided by a constitutional imperative to recognise the rights of children, the equality of children and the voices of children in decisions they make in relation to children, then vote Yes.

The decision to hold the referendum was agreed unanimously by all members of both Dáil and Seanad Éireann – a rare moment of consensus in Irish politics! That consensus tells us that on this very particular issue – the best interests of children – we share a common commitment and want to set the standard which will inform future policy and decisions.

Finally, I am pleased that this referendum takes place on a Saturday, which should be more family- and child-friendly than our traditional weekday polls. I hope that it will encourage people to come out and vote, particularly those who are working or studying away on weekdays. In particular, I hope that November 10th will be an opportunity for parents to bring their children to the polling station, to give them a taste of democracy in action. What better occasion than when the children themselves are the subject of the vote?

Frances Fitzgerald is Minister for Children and Youth Affairs

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