Dances of innocence in midst of hard experience


SKETCH:First stop, Dublin Castle and the central count centre for the referendum result.

Next stop, Grafton Street and the Disney Store for some final research on those all important Santa letters.

And then, if they were really good, there would be pizza.

Neassa (4) and Clíodhna (2) from Collon in Co Louth weren’t that fussed by the outcome of the children’s referendum. They were in the castle because their mother, Mara O’Reilly, was part of the “Yes for Children” campaign.

“I wanted them to be here for this historic moment,” explained Mara, who works with the ISPCC.

As referendum counts and declarations go, yesterday’s was particularly dull. Disney and pizza afterwards would go a way towards brightening up the afternoon. The highlight for the girls came after the official announcement, when the returning officer departed and left an invitingly empty stage behind her.

In the body of the hall, both sides of the debate reacted immediately to the result. They gathered in small groups – moving from microphone to microphone – analysing the figures and advancing the best spin possible for their cause.

What was good for the children. What was bad for the children.

The children this.

The children that.

As the adults milled around, engrossed in the traditional post-result commentary, the two little girls climbed onstage and began to dance.

Apart from their mother, few noticed. Too busy talking.

They danced beneath the big screen displaying the final percentages and they danced around the lectern from where Ríona Ní Fhlanghaile had just declared the 31st amendment to the Constitution carried.

Neassa and Clíodhna were oblivious to the significance of what had taken place. Which is the way it should be.

A new article will now be inserted into the Constitution and it will be headed “children”. It took 20 years for our politicians to bring this about.

Following delays and false dawns and years of painstaking discussion in the Oireachtas about enshrining the rights of children in the Constitution, a wording was finally agreed upon for the consideration of the people.


Every political party in Leinster House supported the amendment. The church gave its blessing. Children’s rights organisations and the vast majority of people working in the area of child protection urged a Yes vote.

The weight of opinion in favour of this constitutional change amounted to the near full consensus of civil society in Ireland. Do it for the children, was the message.

But despite all that, the response from the electorate was decidedly lukewarm.

Twenty years in the planning. The counting of votes took less than six hours yesterday. Two-thirds of the State didn’t even cast one.

In keeping with the way the campaign was conducted, the supporters of the referendum far outnumbered those against it in Dublin Castle.

But that numerical superiority was not reflected in the final result. It’s not what the Government wanted to see.

On the big screen, the large red blob in the northwest corner of the map told its own story. But the politicians and Yes campaigners could live with it. It was just “Donegal being Donegal”, they sighed. As they saw it, Donegal was simply cementing its reputation as a serially contrary county by bucking the overall national trend again.

Dublin North-West was the only other constituency to reject the amendment, though there were close calls in other parts of the State.

But a result is a result.

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald hailed the outcome as a historic day for children’s rights. “Historic” was the word of the day, as the politicians began the long process of explaining why the turnout was so low and the result not as overwhelming as they might have hoped.

Fitzgerald felt “shock tactics” were used by certain people on the No side, which affected the way people voted. Some of their claims were “nonsensical”, she said. “There was this idea put about that every family would be vulnerable to having its child snatched. It was ridiculous.”

But later in the evening, Kathy Sinnott, speaking in Cork, wasn’t so sure. “We’ve given control of children and childhood to the State.”

Leo Varadkar, Fine Gael’s campaign director, was philosophical. He would have liked a better turnout, but while people would forget the figures in time, the amendment would remain in history.

Richard Greene of the Christian Solidarity Party didn’t get the miracle he had hoped for, but he wasn’t too dispirited by the result.

The poor turnout, the close nature of the result in some constituencies and the Government’s court embarrassment over its information booklet was some consolation.

A man wearing a red T-shirt with the slogan “Psychopaths rule the world” became emotional after the result was announced. “It’s a sad day for Ireland and our children. I’m devastated,” he cried.


In general, the atmosphere in Dublin Castle was muted. But you could sense the relief and sense of quiet achievement among the representatives of the children’s organisations.

The Minister for Justice – he isn’t known for his humility and referendums seem to make him particularly bullish – was very happy. “We beat Dún Laoghaire by two percentage points,” he said, grinning.

Imagine how great the margin would have been for Dublin South over their next door neighbours if Alan had kept his mouth shut during the campaign.

Sinn Féin was represented by Mary Lou McDonald and Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, in a rare display of unity among the parties. Caoimhghín was accompanied by his two youngest children, Órán (11) and Deirbhile (19). “Two of my five,” he declared proudly.

Nobody there from Fianna Fáil, for some reason.

When the result was announced – the hall wasn’t particularly full – there was applause and a few cheers. But no big displays of celebrating. The sound of a baby crying punctuated the declaration.

For the children’s rights campaigners, this was a happy day. But they know they still have their work cut out for them. The Government does too. Except in its case, this result shows it has a lot more than just the children to worry about.