Zappone confident Eighth Amendment referendum will be carried
Minister for Children hopeful for social change following ‘worst year of my life’
Minister for Children Katherine Zappone. Remaining faithful to the change-making qualities and instincts of her late wife Ann Louise Gilligan has been her main motivating factor. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The four photographs were taken in June. You can see the bright sunlight filter in through the large doorway. They were taken in quick succession. The two figures therein are half in silhouette but both are easily recognisable. One is President Michael D Higgins; the other Katherine Zappone. She is in Áras an Uachtaráin, receiving her ministerial seal of office, a week later than her Cabinet colleagues.
Seven days earlier, as Leo Varadkar’s Ministers travelled to the Phoenix Park, Zappone was at the bedside of her wife Ann Louise Gilligan, who died hours after Zappone’s reappointment as Minister for Children.
In the last photograph, we see the President put his arm around the grief-stricken Zappone in a gesture of sympathy and friendship.
“He embraced me. It is an example of what has happened to me time and time again since Ann Louise passed away,” she says referring to the continuing stream of sympathy she has received. “That helps.”
Six months after Gilligan’s death, it still remains a difficult and emotional subject for Zappone. They had been together for over 35 years and had become, by dint of the struggle for marriage equality, one of Ireland’s most public couples.
“It was the worst year of my life personally,” she says, trying to hold back the tears.
“At the same time I have this incredibly privileged job in an environment in which I am embraced and supported by colleagues. That’s everybody I work with.”
Remaining faithful to the change-making qualities and instincts of her late wife has been her main motivating factor. “Ann Louise believed in what I could do and supported what I wanted. To be faithful to her love and commitment I have to keep going.
“I believe we have been able to do all the changes we have made in the last six months because her spirit is alive in me.”
Despite that huge loss, it has been a productive six months for Zappone professionally. As Minister for Children she secured an increase in the budget to assist with one of her major priorities, which is a concerted focus on early years and preschool education. In practical terms, it means a second year of free preschool education for very young children from next September.
In addition, in the latter half of the year, an Oireachtas committee recommended a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment restricting abortion. In her early days as Minister, she shipped a fair deal of criticism for not forcing this issue, by supporting Opposition motions. What’s happening now seems to vindicate the position she adopted. A referendum is expected in May.
In addition, her constituent Ibrahim Halawa, for whom she campaigned constantly, was released from an Egyptian prison four years after being incarcerated.
It’s easy to forget Zappone has been a Dáil deputy for less than two years and a Minister for even less time. But it helped that she was appointed to an area to which she has devoted much of her professional life.
Zappone’s focus on early education stems from her experience over three decades providing education in some of the poorest and most excluded parts of Tallaght.
For her, if a child loses out at this crucial formative stage, it becomes very difficulty to make up the deficit.
“If we have more invested in early years, every child has the opportunity of two years of free education . . . it will allow them have the same opportunity [for learning] in Killinarden [in Tallaght] as they have in Blackrock.”
She finds it paradoxical that pay and conditions in the childcare sector are so inferior to teachers working in other stages of education.
“The most important people who are teaching are those teaching the youngest children rather than those at third level. We need at least as much training and investment [including third-level degrees] for them. We need to see that we provide more money. My own ideal goal is that these [educators] play as strong a role as others.
“In the context of children and families where there is low income and intergenerational poverty, the thing that works best – and I have been doing this for 30-something years in Tallaght – is you offer education and training for the parents close to where the children are.
“It breaks the intergenerational cycle of poverty.”
Another big issue that became apparent to her soon after she became Minister was that children who had experienced sexual or physical abuse were traumatised when they were obliged to tell their story.
She noticed that the State’s services to deal with these situations were disparate and a little fragmented. In the past six months, accompanied by her officials and the Government’s special rapporteur on child protection Geoffrey Shannon, she has undertaken a number of fact-finding missions. One was to the Bronx in New York, another was to the Rowan Centre in Co Antrim and a third, in the new year, will be to Oxford. What they have in common is one location where all the professionals and services work together in dealing with child abuse cases.
Now she wants to build a model for such centres in Ireland.
On the Eighth Amendment, she believes it possible the referendum will pass.
“I do feel as I chat with people door to door that more and more people feel it’s time for a change. There is a new generation and I would be confident.”
Is she confident that the unconditional 12 weeks proposal would also pass. “I would have hope for that too,” she says. The Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment concluded recently that article 40.3.3 should be removed from the Constitution and politicians should be allowed to legislate for abortion to permit terminations up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, without restriction.