No Child 2020: Fintan O’Toole on a new Irish Times initiative

The problems children face in Ireland today, and the policies that could solve them

When the first Dáil met in Dublin on January 21st, 1919, it was the most representative democratic assembly ever to have met in Ireland. On that first day, it passed a document called the Democratic Programme, a pithy statement about what the republic it had just declared would look like.

Remarkably, it did something very rare for its time: it placed children at the heart of the way the new state was supposed to imagine itself. Not the rhetorical “children of the nation” of the 1916 Proclamation but real, ordinary kids. It said that children would be the priority. And it set down a set of criteria by which the republic would wish itself to be judged.

Those criteria are the things that a child needs in order to grow up with security and dignity.

The words that made this radical statement of national purpose are few and plain:


“It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.”

No flourishes, no evasions, no ambiguities, no escape clauses. Here was a clear and bold promise – if we do nothing else, this is what will make our struggle worthwhile and justify our independence.

These 68 words are not utopian. They do not imagine a free Irish future in which every child is always happy. They contain an idea of freedom that is partly negative, defining what a child must be free from in order to have a decent life. They are about a minimum, not a maximum – they set down the basic requirements without which it is not possible for a child to grown up as the citizen of a republic. But with their remarkable clarity and concision, they serve as a five-part pact.

Five promises

If we unpack the words a little, we find five promises to the children of Ireland. The first is about wellbeing – the physical, mental and spiritual health of the child will be the republic’s first duty.

The second is about hunger: no child will lack adequate food.

The third is about shelter: no child will be homeless.

The fourth is about education: every child will have the education he or she needs to grow up as a dignified member of a free republic.

And the fifth is contained in that remarkable choice to address children as “citizens”. Not future citizens, not material to be moulded, not building blocks for an Ireland under construction, but citizens: full members of Irish society here and now. The implicit promise is that children will be seen and heard, that their needs will matter at least as much as the needs of those who have votes.

We cannot think of the history of our republic without thinking about 'illegitimate children born in shame and buried in unmarked graves'

On Monday, January 21st, 2019, we mark the centenary of this remarkable document in which Irish people should take such pride. Yet it is probable that most Irish people have barely heard of it. It has never been delivered to schools by members of the defence forces or hung on classroom walls.

And it is not hard to understand why. Instead of being our calling card as a nation, it is our bad conscience. We cannot think of the history of our republic without thinking about “illegitimate” children born in shame and buried in unmarked graves, children imprisoned in horrific industrial schools, children unwanted and unheeded.

Nor can we say that these abuses are in the past. The five promises the republic made to children have still not been kept.

We therefore face a moment of truth. The commemorations almost three years ago of the 1916 Rising were a success because they were not simply an excuse for unthinking national pride. They meant something because, as citizens, we took the opportunity to think about what Irish independence means and what it ought to mean.

There was to some extent a taking-back of that powerful word “republic”, not as a form of self-assertion but as an invitation to reflect on our failures as well as our successes, to explore our shame as well as our pride.

The commemoration of the Democratic Programme is a chance to take those reflections into a different realm, to do things that would give the republic some flesh.

A century on

We can do that by saying that 100 years of broken promises to children is long enough. If we really want to renew the republic, we need to go back to the contract it entered into at its birth but never honoured. The first Dáil was quite right to think that the government of the republic should be judged first by the way it treats children. A century on, that judgment must be harsh – unless we go back to the five promises and start fulfilling them.

But they can be fulfilled. Ireland is a vastly wealthier society than the members of the first Dáil – even the wildest utopians among them – ever dreamed possible. Even in 1919 they were not fools to think that a decent society can give all of its children the five basic things they need in order to grow up properly. In 2019 we would be fools to think otherwise.

We know, moreover, things that even the most thoughtful of the members of the first Dáil did not: just how much the early years (even the early months) shape a child’s chances in life.

One of the most terrifying and yet most hopeful developments of our time is the huge leap in understanding the development of the child’s brain and personality. We know that stress and distress in the early years can haunt the rest of a person’s life.

But we also know that good early-years care pay astonishing dividends for every individual. And because they give children resilience and confidence and the capacity to flourish, they also pay extraordinary dividends to society, vastly reducing the potential social and economic costs of crime, physical and mental illness and inadequate education.

This greater understanding of early childhood is scary because it tells us what can go wrong: damage in childhood is very hard to reverse.


But it is also a cause for great optimism. Good policies and basic provisions work. There is a vast body of evidence from around the world that coherent, consistent, evidence-based policies really can transform the lives of children – and therefore make the society they will inherit a much better place.

Some of those policies have been successfully implemented in Ireland, but they have not been implemented coherently or consistently. Progress can be thrown into dramatic reverse: Ireland managed the terrible feat of almost doubling consistent child poverty in the austerity years. Contrary to the promises of the Democratic Programme, there was no sense that protecting children was “the first duty” in tough times.

Let’s begin with the most basic of those promises: on hunger and shelter. The Democratic Programme is quite blunt about these: “no child” should be hungry or lack shelter. Why? Because food and a home are not commodities. They are physical necessities, especially for children who need good nutrition if they are to grow physically and a stable home if they are to feel safe enough to grow mentally.

And yet, we have never been able to say that “no child” is hungry or homeless in our republic.

The key reason why one in five children in Ireland goes to school or to bed hungry is not a lack of food in Ireland – it is a lack of political will and organisational focus

One in five children in Ireland goes to school or to bed hungry because there is not enough food in the house. Agencies that provide services for children suffering deprivation report patterns of young children smuggling food home with them at weekends because they knew there would not be enough to eat.

Yet there has never been a coherent national strategy on, for example, the provision of school meals – some schools in deprived areas have excellent breakfast clubs and meal services; some have none.

The key issue is not a lack of food in Ireland – it is a lack of political will and organisational focus. In 2016, the body that did most work on the issue and developed successful pilot programmes, Healthy Food for All, was wound up “due to a lack of sustainable funding”.

It left a programme of concrete actions that could be implemented – if the republic cared enough about the scandal of hungry children.

Shocking realities

For some years child homelessness has been at crisis levels. Focus Ireland has said that a child is becoming homeless in Ireland every five hours. In January 2015, there were 865 children living in emergency accommodation, a number that seemed shocking at the time. Two years later the number was 2,400. By July 2018, there were 3,867 homeless children in Ireland.

The effects of living in one room in a hotel or B&B are enormously disruptive for children who struggle to have a normal family life, to play, to do homework, to maintain relationships with friends and to attend the school they are used to.

In addition, thousands of children have grown up in the direct provision system for asylum seekers, in conditions widely acknowledged to be drastically unsuitable for their needs. There were more than 1,500 children in the system in September 2018. These abuses are choices: they happen precisely because preventing them is not a “first duty” of government.

When it comes to the third promise, to protect and promote the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of children, we know that Ireland is capable of providing excellent care and services. It just can’t do it consistently or equally.

Mortality rates for Traveller children are 3.6 times higher than for the general population. The shocking reality is that it is possible to tell the socio-economic status of Irish infants just by looking them: the children from poor families are physically different.

By the age of three, according to the study Growing Up in Ireland, "Children from less advantaged households are shorter on average than those from professional and managerial households and remain so at all ages."

Inequality is written on the body.

Health services specifically for children are often patchy and inadequate. The saga of the National Children's Hospital is a sorry one

Health services specifically for children are often patchy and inadequate. The saga of the National Children’s Hospital is a sorry one. Ireland still sends children to adult mental hospitals, a practice long since accepted as repugnant to civilised standards. Children and teenagers often have to wait up to 12 months for an appointment with a mental health professional. As of March 2018 there were 2,691 children and young adults waiting for the HSE to provide them with an appointment, including 386 who were waiting longer than 12 months.

The same pattern is evident in the failure to keep the promise that every child would have access to the best possible education. Ireland is one of the few developed countries that does not have fully free primary education. Quality control in early childhood education and in child-minding is still deeply inadequate. (Fewer than 200 of about 19,000 childminders are even registered with Tusla.)

Religious discrimination is still institutionalised in the education system. More than 15,000 children are waiting for an assessment for speech and language difficulties, let alone for treatment. A child is three times more likely to go on to higher education if its parents have higher education than if those parents have not completed secondary level education.

The failures in these four areas are underwritten by the failure of the fifth promise: children do not have enough of a voice as citizens. Real progress has been made (with the establishment of the Ombudsman for Children and the insertion of the children’s rights amendment to the Constitution).

Keeping promises

But the needs and rights of children are not only not the “first duty” of government, they are still marginal considerations for the political system. There is plenty of goodwill and shelves full of policies and proposals.

In most cases, what needs to be done is obvious. In many cases – such as the development of area-based early-childhood taskforces – pilot projects have superb results but, instead of being turned into mainstream efforts, they are simply dropped.

This can change. The political system does not prioritise children because the public in general doesn’t do so either. Pessimism is often used as an excuse – the belief that nothing can be done relieves the burden of having to do anything.

This journalistic initiative – a series of Irish Times articles and online reports providing a sustained focus on child welfare in 2019 – is about turning that pessimism into a sober but tangible optimism.

The promises made almost a century ago can be kept, and in keeping them, Ireland can rediscover the meaning of a republic.

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly opinion column