The Government faced questions from the UN Child Rights Committee in Geneva on Tuesday over “alarming” delays in assessments for children with disabilities and mental health issues.
Ireland, as a party to the Child Rights Convention, is required to undergo regular reviews by the UN committee of 18 independent international experts.
Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman, who attended the committee meeting along with senior officials from Government departments, acknowledged in his opening statement that there were “very significant challenges” in the area.
He said the forthcoming transfer of disability functions to his department will bring together the operational and policy elements allowing for a more “holistic” approach to the area.
Clarence Nelson, a member of the UN committee and supreme court judge from Samoa, told the delegation he was aware of staff shortages in disability teams and how children were waiting years for assessments, in some circumstances.
In addition, he highlighted a Mental Health Commission report earlier this week which highlighted the inadequacy of mental health support for vulnerable children, and queried what measures were being addressed to tackle these shortcomings.
Other committee members highlighted issues such as the barriers for children in accessing non-denominational schools, whether the State is addressing issues such as gender recognition for young people and the kind of measures being taken to promote online safety.
Mr O’Gorman told the meeting that Ireland has faced very significant challenges over the last few years, in particular Brexit, Covid and the effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Notwithstanding this, he said the State had made progress improving access to affordable early learning and childcare, with a fourfold increase in annual investment between 2015 and 2023 from €260 million just over €1 billion in 2023.
This included an inclusive preschool experience for children with disabilities – the access and inclusion model – which benefited more than 25,000 children since it was introduced in 2016.
In relation to refugees and asylum seekers, he said Ireland has among the highest per capita number of Ukrainian refugees in Europe, while the number of asylum seekers from other countries is at “an all-time high”.
“In terms of the challenges that can arise when trying to integrate large numbers of new arrivals into local communities, I want to be clear that Ireland strongly condemns all forms of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, discrimination and intolerance,” Mr O’Gorman said.
Other members of the Irish delegation responded to the committee’s questions on areas such as gender recognition, access to education and whether Ireland’s taxation policy was depriving developing countries with young populations from much-needed revenue.
On gender recognition, officials said the Government has commissioned research into how gender recognition should be provided for transgender children under the age of 16. The research findings will inform the development of a system robust enough to support children while minimising associated risks, officials said.
While the process of gender recognition for adults requires self-declaration only, the committee was told that the avenue for 16-17-year-olds currently requires parental consent and a court order. The Government plans to make this “less onerous” by extending self-declaration to this age group, with counselling supports for families, officials said.
In response to questions about lowering the voting age, the committee was told hat the new Electoral Commission has been asked to examine the experience in Scotland where it was lowered to 16.
On the issue of access to non-denominational schools, officials said the Government was in the middle of a “major” school reconfiguration project which aimed to create more choice for parents, and there was an objective of delivering 400 multi-denominational schools by the end of the decade.
The UN committee is due to resume its questioning of the Irish delegation on Wednesday morning.