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As it happened: Vincent Browne's Children's Referendum debate
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  • TV3 Children's Referendum debate

    Pic: Brian McEvoy
  • TV3 Children's Referendum debate

    Kathy Sinnott and John Waters. Pic: Brian McEvoy.
  • TV3 Children's Referendum debate

    Minister Frances Fitzgerald. Pic: Brian McEvoy.
  • TV3 Children's Referendum debate

    Fergus Finlay. Pic: Brian McEvoy.

THERE ARE ONLY ten days left until the country goes to the polls on the children’s rights referendum.

Lest you need a reminder what exactly the wording of the amendment that we are all voting on means, we asked two experts – one “slightly sceptical” and one less so – for their interpretations. That was back in September. Since then, we’ve heard a great deal on why we should vote ‘Yes’ and also some reasons why we should vote ‘No’.

Tonight will see the first – and possibly only – long televised debate on the issue. Vincent Browne hosts it on TV3 from 10pm. Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Barnardos CEO Fergus Finlay will be in the ‘Yes’ corner; former MEP Kathy Sinnott and columnist John Waters are in the ‘No’ zone.

Let’s see what they have to say. And let’s see what you have to say in our comments section.

Good evening all. While we wait for Vincent Browne to get his glare in order for the Children’s Rights Referendum Debate on TV3, it’s worth noting that there was a mini-debate on RTÉ’s Prime Time last night.

Kathy Sinnott, who is out for the ‘No’ side again this evening, was arguing points with children’s law solicitor Catherine Ghent. Leo Varadkar, who is Fine Gael’s director of elections, wasn’t pleased with some of former MEP Sinnott’s stats last night… What do you think?

There has been a little confusion on the Tweet Machine, as our #vinb would call it, as to how Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald will make it to RTÉ in time for the Late Debate radio show on RTÉ Radio 1 tonight. Well we can *reveal (*well, TV3 openly say so) that the TV3 debate went ahead one hour ago and is being shown as a pre-record. But as it’s only an hour ago, we’ll go with the ‘almost live’ tag.

Vincent has had all the proposed amendments read out in plain English.

The four debaters are on their podiums and they’re off.

Fergus Finlay says that the referendum will be “a statement of intent” towards the nation’s children and will oblige the State to perform “better than they have” towards them.

His thoughts are that it will give children more representation and also help with getting children into more permanent family situations when they are stuck in fostering limbo. (My words.)

John Waters fears that the wording shrouds action in “speculation” and “prophesy” where what happens in children’s cases will be handed over to “experts” whose view will count in court.

He has an issue with the word “paramount” which he says will trump any other concepts in Article 41. (the rights of the family)

Frances Fitzgerald citing the Kilkenny and Roscommon case, more recently, where children were left in “appalling states of neglect”. She thinks the amendment will give them more protection and listen to the views of the children more than they have been in the past.

She says parents will still have “very strong protection”.

Kathy Sinnott believes that the Kilkenny and Roscommon cases actually show that the referendum proposals won’t work because it was the State that failed them, she said.

“This is about taking the rights of families to protect children, good families…” – she says that the rights of “bad families” have already been taken away so it is the rights of “good” families that will be compromised.

Frances Fitzgerald says that it is a lot less likely with the amendment that parents who try to put an impediment in place to intervention in the case of abuse or neglect would be successful.

John Waters is enraged by this. He says that in the Kilkenny case for example, that everyone from gardai to social workers were aware the girl in question was at risk from the age of six months of age, and that it was a neglectful State that failed to take up the power they already have under the Constitution to intervene.

Frances Fitzgerald is not going along with this. This will help children in cases like that, she asserts.

Fergus Finlay asks Kathy Sinnott to be “reasonable”, saying that yes, the State had failed, but that this is not what left those children in institutions.

Frances Fitzgerald: This is not about giving the State more power, this is not about taking power from parents. “The best interests are presumed to be with the family, except in extreme circumstances.”

Vincent Browne takes up Fergus Finlay on a point, saying he’s wrong to say that children do not have rights under the Constitution as it currently stands.

Fergus says that it is the first time children get an express mention to the right of childhood. Not an implied right, but a stated right.

Vincent says the State has an obligation to vindicate the rights of ALL its citizens, and that goes for children too.

Fergus Finlay says that the law provides that a child can be heard at the discretion of a judge. Now it’s explicit that they must.

Frances Fitzgerald says it makes a legal difference.

“What law?” says Vincent.

She’s not getting into specific laws, says the minister.

John Waters says that the Constitution should not be “dismantled” to make up for the failings of the State.

Vincent: This isn’t dismantling the Constitution, John, it’s a small amendment.

John Waters seems bothered that a judge or another expert who is given discretion here on what will be the best move to protect the child might have an agenda or motivation we can’t guess at.

Vincent is wondering if that’s not the case in all court cases now.

Fergus Finlay answering John Waters – or trying to.

John calling in camera courts “secret courts”. Frances Fitzgerald saying that there will be two judges given to the courts to be very alert to the needs of the child in the way they haven’t previously been in terrible cases like Roscommon or Kilkenny.

Kathy Sinnott mentions her son’s case – it was a landmark judgement that every child in the country deserves the education they need to learn. It was based around the word “appropriate” which she says is important and will be dropped with this amendment.

Children have “a right to the protection of the family” because it is their “natural habitat”, she says, but if the family breaks down, Article 42 currently obliges the State to fill in with “appropriate” measures.

Fergus Finlay says he was one of thousands of parents who supported Kathy and Jamie Sinnott and admired her for this.

BUT, he says that the case has gone into “mythology” and that Jamie “lost” his case. Kathy Sinnott says that this isn’t true and that most of the Supreme Court judgement related to children being entitled to the education they need.

Fergus Finlay said that the tragedy of the Supreme Court judgement was that education was limited by reference to the age of the child and that it is all in the Supreme Court judgement.

This is rather uncomfortable stuff to watch, to be honest.

It appears Frances Fitzgerald thinks so too as she has intervened to try and bring it back to the wording of the amendment and off the subject of the Sinnott case.

There’s the halfway point as everyone goes to compose themselves in an ad break.

What are you thinking so far? Has any light been thrown on a question you had?

What do you think? This is Senator Jillian van Turnhout’s thoughts on the first half:

We’re back and John Waters being asked if the amendment which appears to make clearer the law with regards to being adopted if your parents are married. He reckons it’s a “relatively small number” and that it is already possible to deal with it in law already.

Frances Fitzgerald says that at present married parents can not voluntarily make their children available for adoption. Now they can she says.

There are 2,000 children, she says, who have been living with foster parents for over two years. Only one-third of those are children of married parents. She says the amendment is now making it clear that those children in certain circumstances will be able to get the opportunity to be adopted if it’s appropriate.

Kathy Sinnott claims it is “forced adoption”.

Everyone is talking over each other so that makes it all a bit hard to follow but any emotive language is generally making blood pressures rise.

John Waters reads out an ad for a fostering agency in the Southside People paper. He’s making some link to the Government whose management of the country, he seems to be saying, means that they are paying people to foster children because the State is making it impossible for people to properly look after their kids. John Waters says that four children were “taken into care because their house was dirty” by a secret court and that the amendment would terrorise parents and allow the State to do so too.

Fergus Finlay says if he has information on such a case, it’s his duty to reveal it.

Frances Fitzgerald noticeably slumps at her podium and asks that they bring the debate back to children (rather than the Government, presumably).

Er, intervention perhaps, Vincent?

And here he is. Vincent says that perhaps there should be a change to the ‘in camera’ (no reporting allowed) rule in children’s cases so that there is more transparency.

Frances Fitzgerald says that actually the Government intends to change it. John Waters says he’s been hearing that for 17 years.

Kathy Sinnott says that she wants to say to families that the intention of this amendment is to allow the State to take the “controlling interest” in every family in the country.

That’s the last word to Kathy Sinnott (Vincent did promise at the start of the debate to give the last word to the ‘No’ camp, as he opened with Fergus Finlay, who is on the ‘Yes’ side.

Tonight with Vincent Browne is on next where he will look at what people were saying on Twitter. He also wants to know who you think ‘won’ in the debate.

Can’t say it’s easy to say anyone ‘wins’ in a debate about children and who has or hasn’t been protecting them.

So let’s rephrase that: Did you hear anything tonight that helped you decide how you might vote? If you heard something that actually swayed your vote, that would be interesting to know…

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