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'Standalone' referendum on children's rights to be held this autumn - Gilmore

The Tánaiste says the government is keen to run the Children’s Rights referendum as soon as wording can be agreed.

THE TÁNAISTE says the government is committed to holding the referendum on children’s rights as a standalone proposition with no other simultaneous ballots – and hopes to do so this autumn.

Eamon Gilmore said the publication of yesterday’s report into the deaths of children in state care had galvanised the need to press ahead with plans to enshrine the rights of the child in the Constitution.

“We all agree that the report that was published yesterday was shocking,” the Tánaiste said. ”What it described was a disgrace, the way in which children died – some in the care of the state”.

“This was the period of our great prosperity – the period when so much partying was going on, so muh patting on the back,” he added.

Asked in the Dáil about the timing of the planned referendum, Gilmore said it was intended to introduce the appropriate legislation whenever the wording of the referendum had been agreed upon with other political parties and interest groups.

The referendum would be held on a “standalone basis”, he added, saying the government was keen to avoid “the whole melee that happens” when several issues are proposed at once and when debates become muddled between various issues.

“It’s fair to say we’ve had some experience where there are referenda being held and a number of proposals being put,” Gilmore said, referencing the two ballots held alongside the Presidential election last October, one of which – the referendum on Oireachtas Inquiries – was defeated.

‘A clear proposal’

The Tánaiste said it was important that the public was presented with a “clear proposal, and the time and the space and the opportunity to debate it and to reflect on it”.

Dara Calleary, standing in for Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, said the “harrowing” report on child deaths underlined the need for all-party agreement on services such as 24-hour social care and a lifting of any embargo on the recruitment of social workers.

“We need to look hard at how children are protected not only by the state, which is important of course, but by families and communities,” Calleary said, completing the “superb and heroic job” of Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbons in compiling the report.

“I have a concern that what happened last year in relation to the other referendums may happen again – that the legislation may be rushed and the issues, which are so complex, may be rushed,” he said.

“I’m concerned that a rushed referendum may lead to confusion, and lead to a situation where a genuine proposal will be lost in the melee of an uneven debate.”

Gilmore said there was no fear of the proposal being rushed, as it had been worked on since the lifetime of the previous government and had been “signalled for some time”.

He agreed that the report made for “really shocking reading” and said the government would do “what is in the best interests of the people of the country.”

Confirmation welcomed

Tanya Ward of the Children’s Rights Alliance said her group was “delighted” with the confirmation of the referendum, which reflected “the public mood and society’s appetite to consign Ireland’s systemic neglect of vulnerable children to the past”.

“Yesterday’s Child Deaths Report further illustrated the ways in which the Constitution blocks social work efforts to protect children,” Ward said in a statement.

“It is time for this to change.  We deserve a Constitution that protects children and supports them to grow up in a stable family home.”

UNICEF Ireland also welcomed the commitment, with executive director Peter Power saying the amendment “would allow children to be valued as individuals in their own right and their rights recognised accordingly by Irish society as a whole.”

“We urge the Government to ensure that the proposed amendment will allow the State to take full account of children’s rights and what is in the best interest of the child will become the cornerstone of every decision that affects children,” he said.

Read: Deaths of many children in care ‘may have been preventable’, report finds

Reaction: ‘Shameful day’ as child deaths report ‘signifies our societal failure’

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Gavan Reilly

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