Children first

Special Report To stand by the Republic is to stand by children. To do otherwise would be reneging on the good fight

Jake Fallon (10), Brooke Murray (5) and Michael Murray (6) all from the Iveagh Trust Buildings at Kevin Street in Dublin to help promote a “Yes” vote in the children’s referendum in 2012.  Photograph: Frank Miller

Jake Fallon (10), Brooke Murray (5) and Michael Murray (6) all from the Iveagh Trust Buildings at Kevin Street in Dublin to help promote a “Yes” vote in the children’s referendum in 2012. Photograph: Frank Miller

Fri, Apr 25, 2014, 01:00

It would be lovely if we could say that the decade since the establishment of the office of the Ombudsman for Children has been one of steady progress for the young. In some respects, alas, this would be untrue.

In relation to child poverty, the first half of the decade is indeed a positive story of slow but steady improvements. But the crash has been especially hard on children. In 2008, 6.3 per cent of them were living in consistent poverty. By 2011, this was true of 9.3 per cent of children. Vulnerable children have been pushed to the front to take the punishment for their elders and betters. The idea that the welfare of children should be first priority in decision making may have been enshrined in the Constitution, but it has not been obvious in the making of economic policy.

And yet, while a degree of scepticism is justified, cynicism is not. The first public campaign in which I was involved (when I was 15) was for the abolition of corporal punishment in schools. It met with ferocious opposition from politicians, parents and some teachers. Why? Because it was obvious that children were essentially evil and, unless they were ruled by fear, they would become feral. The idea that it was okay for an adult to physically assault a child so long as it was done in the classroom was deeply rooted. Children didn’t have rights and were not entitled to respect.

There has been a sea-change in those attitudes and the work of Emily Logan and her colleagues has been a significant part of it. Aside even from the detailed, patient work on individual complaints and on many areas of public policy and practice, the office has embodied for the first time an official recognition of children as citizens. It matters enormously that the office is an independent arm of the State, not a branch of a government department.The Ombudsman reports directly to the Oireachtas, not to a minister.

Its existence is predicated on the simple but easily ignored fact that children do not have the vote and are not represented in the structures of power. It gives them at least a foothold in those structures.

In her first official submission to an Oireachtas committee in 2005, Emily Logan made two basic statements about children. One is that “children’s rights are human rights”. The other is that children “are holders of rights, not possessions of parents or of the State”.

In essence, the work of the last decade has been the teasing out of the implications of these statements. They may seem like abstract claims but we know far too well in Ireland what they mean. We can weigh their meaning by what we know of their opposites. What does it mean if children don’t have the same rights as other citizens? What does it mean if they become possessions, not people? The answers are written all over modern Ireland’s hidden histories or abuse, neglect and contempt.

A pessimist might say that it is appalling that we are still struggling to establish such basic concepts as understanding that children are not lesser human beings and that children are not owned by anybody.

An optimist might reply that there has at least been real progress in giving these ideas an institutional life, through the ombudsman’s office, the children’s rights clauses in the Constitution, the establishment of a cabinet-level ministry for children and the creation of the Child and Family Agency. Both views seem correct. In large areas of economic and fiscal policy, children remain an afterthought. There is a stark mismatch between noble aspirations and the actual allocation of resources to the services that affect children. (More than a third of those in the often horrible “direct provision” system for asylum seekers are children; children with mental health problems are still being admitted to adult psychiatric units.) But compared to a decade ago, the place of children in the architecture of the State has advanced almost beyond recognition.

There is no room, then, for complacency or self-congratulation. The fight to place children at the centre of the Republic remains a tough and often bitter struggle. The achievement of the office of the Ombudsman for Children has been to make that contest appreciably more equal.