Time to honour a forgotten vow to the nation's children

Tue, Nov 6, 2012, 00:00

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.

A benchmark

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.

Most of the No campaign is driven not by justified anger but by ideology. There are people who believe “the family” as an abstract ideal must be protected at all costs – including costs to children.

They have campaigned relentlessly against the Stay Safe programme in primary schools, which aims to help children protect themselves from abuse. They oppose the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. They accuse fellow-Catholic organisations such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul and Catholic Youth Care of being dominated by an “anti-family agenda”. They oppose the idea of “child-centred education”.

These people are campaigning the only way they know how – through paranoia. Alive!, which is the main forum for the No ideologists, characterises the vote as the “anti-parents referendum” driven by “UN left-wing radicals”. Its basic “argument” is the headline “Politicians and social workers to be given the role of parents?” (James Reilly is coming for your baby!) Kathy Sinnott tells readers that a Yes vote will become “a charter for child-predators of every sort to exploit innocent and immature children and teenagers”. (Jimmy Savile is coming for your baby!)

Relatively cautious

In truth, the easiest way to get a sense of how relatively tame and cautious the referendum proposals are is to put the word not before each of them.

There should not be any explicit acknowledgment in the Constitution that children have rights. The State should not be able to intervene, proportionally and in exceptional cases, where parents are putting the safety and welfare of children at risk.

Children born of married parents should not be capable of being adopted, even by foster parents who have actually brought them up. The best interests of the child should not be the primary consideration in court cases that concern their welfare. Children who are capable of forming their own views should nevertheless not be allowed to express those views in proceedings that concern them. Behind the hysteria and paranoia, this is what the No campaigners are actually saying.

If you find all of those propositions reasonable, by all means vote No. If you think that endorsing the ideology of people who have opposed every development that has given children in Ireland more dignity is the best way to kick out at the Government’s double standards, by all means vote No.

But if you think, as I do, that the exclusion of children from our Constitution was a disgraceful abandonment of the most noble principle of a would-be republic, you will see the referendum for what it is: a cautious, modest but utterly necessary restatement of what, in one of our better moments, we thought we might be.

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