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Column The children's referendum is a chance to put things right

By voting yes, we can prove that this generation has done more than any other to protect children who have been betrayed in the past, writes Aodhán Ó Riordáin.

WITH THE WORDING of the Referendum on Children’s now published and the date fixed for Saturday 10 November, it finally gives us the opportunity to give constitutional status to that oft-quoted phrase from the Proclamation of the Republic: ‘To cherish all the children of the Nation equally’. After much debate and thought we at last have the chance to put to bed the anomalies in the constitution that have failed so many of our citizens in the past who suffered abuse and neglect.

It is crucial that we as a society take this referendum extremely seriously and that collectively we play an active role in campaigning for these necessary amendments to our Constitution. If we succeed we can proudly state that this generation has done more than any other to protect the very group who we have betrayed so grievously in the past. I am often asked the very simple question: Why do we need a referendum? The answer is actually a very simple one: we need to protect the special place that is childhood for every one of our citizens.

The constitution needs to be amended so that there is a general recognition and affirmation of the rights of children. We need to ensure that there is provision for the State to intervene in those very rare cases when a child’s parents have failed to protect them. We need the Constitution to treat all children equally regardless as to whether or not their parents are married. We need to be certain that when proceedings affect children that their best interests are paramount in the production of a resolution. Finally, we need to ensure that the views of children are sought and considered in any proceedings affecting them.

This referendum has been proposed for quite a number of years and on paper it would appear almost like a ‘blueberry pie’ amendment – a lot of people are likely to be in favour of it. Our society has a deep regard for children and their protection has been the focus of much of our national soul-searching over the past number of years, so surely strengthening their position in the Constitution is a no-brainer. Unfortunately constitutional debates in Ireland have never been that simple. A casual glance at the history of this issue demonstrates that it has been one of the most politically sensitive topics of the last decade.

The long road to the referendum

Since 2007 there have been 3 different wordings proposed for a possible constitutional amendment on this issue. The wording agreed this week by the cabinet is in fact the fourth time such a wording has been produced. This demonstrates just how serious an issue this is for legislators from all parties. It began in 2007 when the then Minister for Children, the late Brian Lenihan, proposed that article 42.5 of the Constitution would be deleted and replaced with a new article that affirmed the “natural and imprescriptible rights of all children”.

However the then government understood the value and importance of obtaining cross party agreement on this issue and later that year the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children was established to agree an all-party consensus. This committee met 62 times over a period of 27 months, producing 3 reports. The final of these reports, in 2010, proposed another wording to strengthen children’s constitutional rights. More recently, in 2011, a third wording was agreed but never formally published by Barry Andrews, who had been appointed Minister of State for Children in 2008. However, this got side tracked with the arrival of the Troika and the general election in February of that year. So the task to put this issue to bed fell onto the new government and the new Minister.

It is clear therefore that before Minister Fitzgerald and the government set out to take on this challenge, there had already been a significant amount of work put into this issue. We have prioritised this measure as a stand-alone referendum so as the debate can be clear and focused. The decision to hold it on a Saturday also gives maximum opportunity to all citizens to have their voice heard, and it is particularly crucial that those who are perhaps voting for the first time have the chance to help bury the painful legacy of the past and to make history for our children.

It is now 13 years since the late Mary Raftery brought to our screens what we already knew about the widespread child abuse in our industrial schools. The publication of the Cloyne and Ferns reports has haunted us since then too. Now, after years of work and detailed analysis, we can finally fix the anomalies present in our Constitution and deliver the necessary protections for our children.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is a TD for Dublin North Central and the Vice Chair of the Joint Committee on Jobs, Education & Social Protection. Prior to entering politics he worked as a Principal in Dublin’s Sheriff Street. He tweets at @Aodhanoriordain.

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