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WELCOME TO THE Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle where six of the seven presidential candidates are debating the issues affecting children in Ireland and the future of the country as part of the children’s charity Barnardos’ debate.

All the candidates except for Dana Rosemary Scallon are in attendance and the debate is being chaired by columnist Olivia O’Leary. We’ll be bringing you all the latest on what they have to say.

Good morning, we’re coming to you live from the Barnardos presidential debate at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin Castle. The candidates are starting to arrive. Seán Gallagher is already here and has been chatting outside with Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay who will open the debate in a few minutes time.

As already mentioned Dana Rosemary Scallon will not be in attendance. The official reason for that is “campaign commitments” according to Barnardos.

Correction: It will be Barnardos chairman Alan Wyley who will open the debate at around 10.30am, there will then be introductory remarks from Olivia O’Leary followed by remarks from each of the candidates and then a question and answer session from around 11.20am. We’ll finish up at around 12.30pm after O’Leary closes the debate.

Olivia O’Leary had just arrived and she’s doing her soundcheck in the debate room.

We’re just heading outside to see what the candidates are saying to assembled media. Back very shortly…

And the candidates are now entering the debate room, Norris chatting with Fergus Finlay. Here’s a picture of them outside just minutes ago…

The candidates and everyone else take their seats. We’ve just been handed Mary Davis’s speech where she says children should be “at the heart of the presidency”. She intends to establish an advisory group of children and young people if elected. But she says there is no magic wand to eliminate poverty.

Alan Wyley opening the debate. Wants a “stimulating” discussion for a “vision for childhood in Ireland”. Olivia O’Leary’s attendance gets the first round of applause.

Wyley says works of Barnardos is dedicated to improving the lives of children, 5,900 children supported last year. On daily basis see impact of poverty, disadvantage and neglect on children’s lives. Believes ninth president of Ireland should establish a new chapter for children in Ireland.

Olivia O’Leary opens and welcomes everyone. Every candidate will get six minutes at the podium. Norris up first.

O’Leary lists Norris achievements and he steps up  to the podium. Begins in Irish. Feels like he’s coming home. Fergus Finlay an old friend of his. Expresses gratitude to Barnardos for their briefings on issues with regard to young people. Recounts support for Guardian Ad Litem clause and the idea of putting the child central in court proceedings. Norris says there is insufficient funding for legal guardians in the courts to represent children.

Norris believes rights of child come first. Says he is impressed by real issues tackled by Barnardos as an example, the cost of schoolbooks – 21 per cent of entire cost of sending child to school. Recalls ability to exchange books when he went to school as he progressed through the school years. There are pressures on families. Likes idea that we should have book lending, urges government to ensure that this scheme is activated for everyone. Norris has a minute left.

Norris wants referendum on children’s rights and asks where it is in the forthcoming referenda. Calls on government to have referendum on children which “we deserve”

Gay Mitchell up now and again O’Leary lists his achievements and experience.

Mitchell says he is a parent and grandparent. Points out achievements in youth working and with St Vincent de Paul. Says debate is very timely. In recent months, reports show painful history of failure of child protection – Cloyne and Amnesty reports which are grim reading. Must learn from the past to ensure a brighter future. An area where president really can help. Can engender kind of debate and change required to put children first. Mitchell did not believe extent of abuse when it came out. But then recalled threat of being sent to Artane – “a place of threat”.

Mitchell says he will use office of president to hold forum where Ireland’s parents will get a voice where their concerns are championed. Youth workers and people who work with young children will also be given a voice in a similar forum. Cites McAleese using office to use similar initiatives – forum on youth mental health. Mitchell says referendum on children’s rights will be next year. Welfare will be of paramount concern. Irish children in long term care can be adopted and to ensure State’s family services can intervene where necessary. Mitchell says he will learn from experience of past. And he is finished.

Mary Davis up now.

Davis says children must be at heart of presidency. Aras an Uachtarain must be a welcoming place where young people are honoured and respected. Intends to organise advisory group of children and young people to meet with her on a regular basis. Group will highlight issues of concern. Policy makers and ministers will be invited to meet with her to discuss report and issue highlights. Davis says we need to focus on children’s rights to make up ground for past failures.

Cites Brian Cowen’s speech post Ryan report about how Ireland must be a model for how we treat children. Davis says blind eye was turned to abuse which left thousands of broken lives. We must never let it happen again she says. Davis believes this is a moment of transition in regards to policy. Great deal of work for new child and family support agency. Children given a voice at cabinet table. First acts of next president will be to sign into law a bill which will have referendum on children’s rights. Long believes constitution should enshrine right for every child to be cared for. Their welfare should be primary responsibility, to have a say in matters that affect them.

Dark days must never be revisited in Ireland. Children are at heart of country’s future. Ireland remains an exciting place for people to grow up. Around 1 in 10 still live in constant poverty. Children go to bed hungry or spend days cold and scared. Still children who live in atmosphere in violence or do not have basic reading or writing skills. Poverty traps and kills potential. Neglect of children must never darken our future again she says. No president can wave magic wand but she says children can be listened to, respected and valued. Priority for her presidency will be to ensure that child will be cared about never should they fell abandoned and alone. Davis slightly over as she concludes her remarks.

Martin McGuinness up now and his past achievements are listed by O’Leary.

McGuinness begins in Irish, greeting the audience and particularly schoolchildren from Monaghan who are present today. McGuinness says impact of brothers in Derry who “weren’t great” had an effect on him. Proud to have helped contribute to Ireland for children who won’t grow up in hatred he grew up in. Cherishing children of nation as proclaimed in 1916 is very important to him. McGuinness says he will ensure inclusion in the Aras if elected.

Level of child poverty in Ireland is staggering for McGuinness. McGuinness says best of interests must be primary concern with regard to all decisions made concerning children. Lists achievements addressing child poverty in NI. Economy must offer more prosperity for children. Children’s rights must be guaranteed. All children from all backgrounds must be respected. All have collective responsibility make life brilliant for children, not just better. Pays tribute to everyone who helped victims of abuse in the North. One minute left.

McGuinness says views of people who were abused in institutions put first. When he was Minister for Education in North he heard story about one classroom where young girl, quiet but within three months, social workers had her talking. Local TV interviewed her and she said she enjoyed being able to talk in front of people. Wants to stand for most disadvantaged children in society. McGuinness concludes.

Seán Gallagher is up next.

Gallagher says during seven years of presidency he will address every secondary school in country because he believes every single student from 12 to 17/18 will be able to say they have met president of Ireland.

Gallagher points to sight disability and how he struggled in school and teachers thought he was a slow learner. They thought he would amount to very little. The isolation then made him understand isolation children feels now. He points to advice that he can be whoever he wants to be as long as he believes in himself. Adopted “if you can dream it, you can become it” as his mantra for life. Recalls Pope John Paul II visit in 1979, formed youth group Foroige.

Gallagher says he signed up to become first professional youth and community worker to work with young people with disabilities and young offenders. Working with disadvantaged people he learned that only thing that would improve things for young people is access to education and to employment. Those who are educated could compete for jobs and get jobs to provide homes. Gallagher says he has championed jobs so as that children who grow up will be able to “sing their song”. When he looks back now, he wants to be the voice of teacher who changed his life.

Gallagher says in conclusion that his passion now is to ensure to be living embodiment of people who can dream, can achieve if they believe in themselves and with help of family support. Gallagher slightly over as he concludes.

Higgins introduced now. He was not father of the Dáil, there was “someone older” jokes O’Leary after she was corrected by the former minister.

Higgins says it is important we speak directly about fulfilling Irish childhood. Points to experience of meeting children in Palestine and the effects of the humiliation of parents in their countries and how that is traumatic for children. Higgins says we have moved beyond point where we have had failure. Should be no impunity for those who carried out abuse. Higgins will welcome referendum but wants change in consciousness as well.

Higgins says every statement made allegedly speaking about cherishing children of nation always has conditions. Higgins says legislation always has conditions, new children’s minister needs to hit ground running. Pays tribute to people who work with young people but they should move beyond advocacy. Higgins says powerful forces opposed legislation and they are still there. Right of state in its law to put protection of child first – lets have straight answers, he says. Higgins raises his voice as he pushes this point. Norris “hear, hears” in the background. Higgins decries children in adult prisons, coming out dependant on drugs. Thinks often of children who are under are noses who are like children in third world… the family and the state and civil society need to get to a new place. Everyone must speak out without fear.

Very impassioned speech by Higgins. Now the floor is to be opened to questions from audience.

First question regards the limit of powers of presidency. Higgins asked what he can do. Higgins cites article 39 of constitution which allows scope for visiting children and speak about it and draw attention to it and be “lamp shining on all these areas.”

Mitchell addresses same question. He cites experience as Lord Mayor and other ministerial experience but says he will remember where he came from and his father dying when he was 5, his mother left with nine young children – this is why he got involved with youth work. Cites issue of suicide and 600 people dying each year, more than official figures. Don’t need to permission of government to summon Dáil. President can bring forward reports, and their publication. President can take issues directly to Oireachtas. Mitchell says first report would be about suicide but happy to take on other issues.

McGuinness says he could shine a slight on issues such as children in adult prisons. Cites example of McAleese’s work in the North. President will have to work positively and constructively with government of the day… cites occasions where McAleese and Robinson before her have done interviews to highlight issues. He would be prepared to be outspoken in positive and constructive way. Cites his experience of building relationships with Ian Paisley and others in North.

Davis says she has been only candidate who has been in prisons and worked with young children but candidates put hands up to say they have too! Davis says giving people hope and confidence that we can make mistakes but we can get over those. President can be voice and presence in community.

Gallagher address same issue of children in adult prisons. It’s about decisions they make on where the visit and where to shine the light. It’s about endorsing and recognising work such as that of Barnardos in support families and individuals. Gallagher says he would be happy to visit every prison with a child in it if elected.

Norris says he will build on his track record of building prisons and says it is not right that children are in adult prisons. Norris highlights issue of internet bullying of children. Norris says he knew what it is like to feel ashamed, frightened and excluded because he was gay. Norris says McGuinness didn’t mention sexual orientation of children in speech when he talked about acknowledgement but admits it was just a slip.

First question from the floor now: Ali from Integration Centre asks what actions candidates would take promoting immigrant children in Ireland?

Mitchell says we should be truly inclusive not just “trend of the day”. Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jewish, Muslims etc will all be welcomed in Áras. Immigration is a great quality and the children of immigrants should be integrated fully. Children should not be left out.

Higgins says he was a lonely voice in 2004, when all children “we’re not equal”. He thinks that president has scope to speak about changes that are needed in legislation. Ethos of state must reflect wishes of people. State must not contradict where people want to go in terms of constitution and legislation.

Norris says he was with Higgins in 2004. Symbolic function of presidency can be important. Shameful that young people have grown up here and then are deported. People of Ireland are more progressive than government or authorities.

Norris says he would attend an eviction as representative of people. Eviction of parents i.e. deportation would also be highlighted. He would stand by deported immigrants at the airport.

Gallagher would visit Integration Centre to hear about their concerns and then work within remit.

Davis says Council of State would be inclusive of all people living in Ireland. She would visit asylum seeker centres and be a voice for those people. She’s been there before and understands horrific conditions they are living in.

McGuinness would also stand by people who are marginalised in Ireland. Acknowledges people who went abroad and were treated as second class citizens. Those people should also be stood by. Says there is huge inequality within society which he is appalled by… points to salaries and bonuses paid to bankers and politicians.

O’Leary asks all candidates if there can be any objection to children’s rights in constitution.

Mitchell says legislation will come next June, wording has been discussed at cabinet.

Higgins says UN Convention on rights of child was in 1992 is a long time, submissions from rights groups for children should be made at constitutional convention.

Norris says that he supports all-party Oireachtas committee on children’s rights that made recommendations.

Gallagher says on personal note that he doesn’t see any reason that rights of child should not be enshrined. Gallagher would like to ensure selection of one young person to represent people on Council of State.

Davis says rights of child should be enshrined. It’s long overdue.

McGuinness agrees with all of his colleagues.

More questions now from the floor. McGuinness has to leave now however. He is applauded as he does.

Question with regards to how candidates would improve social care system and its inefficiencies…

Colm O’Gorman from Amnesty is also asking a question about how mental health of children in care should be protected.

Mitchell addresses first question on inefficiency of social care system. Mitchell believes that minister for children has to be held accountable. Greatest failure is failure of parliament to act as parliament to ensure resources we have are used. President of parliament, presidency is a political office. Parliament is not functioning properly… needs to be accountability for money spent in certain areas, such as social care. There has to be accountability from system.

Davis says there is no role for president in policy but can highlight issues and areas. Governments and political system have failed us in relation to some areas. Many good ideas in society come from people.

With regard to question of mental health in care, Gallagher says it is an issue of mental health overall. Gallagher says young people must be given life skills to reach out and ask for help. Young men are not good at asking for help at the minute.

Norris answers previous question from Monaghan schoolgirl in relation to how important children are in Ireland. Norris says they’re very very important, as Gaeilge.

Norris also addresses question of helping children who are under six in Ireland. Cites example of Mary Robinson visiting Somalia who shone a light on the plight of children there who were even younger than six. Robinson delivered human message, indicates power of symbolic messages which president can deliver.

Gallagher talks about mental health again. Says momentum is gathering now as it is much wider problem in Ireland.

Mark O’Doherty from Rise Foundation asks about parents who abuse alcohol, what would candidates do to raise issue and address it?

Next question from Alcohol Action rep who asks about alcohol abuse among young children, children as young as 10. He points to sponsorship of sporting events which targets young children. Should Dáil bar be got rid of, he asks?

Another question from a young man who asks about how will candidates ensure voice of children is heard in constitutional amendement?

Norris is not a pioneer, enjoys a glass of red but living in North inner city he sees effects of drink and drugs. He heard all time about Irish culture about drinking and we seem to celebrate it and there is commercial lobby behind that. It is political popular to take on issue but he has never been shy to take on such issues. Says he will not be used as advertisement for drink just as Obama was and has turned down offers. Should be a subject of whole conference.

Question was not answered says Mark O’Doherty, what can be done to look after children who look after adults with drink/drug problems?

Higgins takes issue with question. There should be a range of services which child can access. People within political parties who work for change, that’s importnat. Agrees with Norris that there is a day like Arthur’s Day which he does not appear to support.

Higgins says people get “wasted” before they even have a conversation. Drive of advertising to suggest it is important to drink is not right. Higgins says Queen can visit wherever she likes when asked did he support Queen visiting Guinness Storehouse by O’Leary. He would have raised issue with visit there if he was president.

Mitchell brings it back to advertising as well and Guinness’s support of GAA but he is asked to come back to issue of children looking after parents who have abused alcohol. Volunteerism – community can come to assistance to those who are in need. He brought in second report to ban smoking in pubs, evidence was that half of all people admitted to St James’s Hospital were admitted with smoke related illnesses. Receptions should not take place around alcohol in presence of president, he believes.

Davis says she would like to help Rise Ireland get necessary resources to carry out work that they know best how to carry out. Would like to promote non-alcoholic cafés for children and young people.

Gallagher says we need to change culture around alcohol use. He also addresses question of how to hear young people in the children’s referendum… He would like to see lots more parenting courses. Many of parents don’t have skills for parenting. Barnardos will be the advocates too.

Norris says children’s voices are extremely important. Children behave with extraordinary maturity sometimes. Children’s views were made know to Oireachtas all-party committee, he points out.

Higgins says groups who came to Oireachtas all-party committee should also make submission to constitutional convention in the spring of next year.

And that concludes the debate. O’Leary wraps up by thanking candidates for their participation. They will all be back again for tonight’s debate on Prime Time which we will also be live-blogging.

Thanks for joining us today. The live blog will be back tonight with all the latest from the Prime Time debate.

About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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