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Column: EastEnders plot has no bearing on Children’s Referendum

The dramatic storyline has not gone unnoticed but it should not permeate people’s opinions, writes Tanya Ward.

Tanya Ward

WITH ONLY DAYS until the Children’s Referendum, the Irish electorate is beginning to think about how to vote on Saturday 10 November.  To date, the coverage of the Children’s Referendum has been limited, given the absence of a strong No campaign and broad consensus among NGOs, unions, legal bodies, religious leaders and political parties in support of a Yes vote.

As a result, there are worries that people have not been given the necessary information to make an informed decision.  In the absence of informed blanket coverage and wild misinformation peddled by a minority, there are real concerns that the EastEnders storyline will permeate people’s opinions.  Given that the majority of people do not listen to Morning Ireland or watch Vincent Browne, in all likelihood the storyline hasn’t gone unnoticed.  However, the truth of the matter is that the EastEnders plot has no bearing on the Children’s Referendum.

Lola and Lexi

The story involves a young mum, Lola, who loses her child without good reason.  It appears that Lexi, the little baby living with her young mum, was taken away by social workers, because of neglect, which amounted to an untidy flat and a makeshift nappy made from a tea-towel.  It should be noted that this story has already been attacked by the British Association of Social Workers for badly misrepresenting UK social workers.

True, script editors research their storylines and are at pains to root them in real life, but their first priority is to entertain.  That is why there are disproportionate amounts of disasters, affairs and general unhappiness in soap operas.  Even if the storyline was real, it has no bearing here in Ireland, as England’s care system is totally different to Ireland’s.  The crux of the matter is that this is a ridiculous story, even by UK standards, which doesn’t have a Constitution or the same strong legislative protection for family, as we have here in Ireland.

Ultimately, a child cannot be taken into care in Ireland on such spurious grounds and this won’t change if Irish voters pass the Children’s Referendum.  And I can guarantee you that, as someone who was born to a young unmarried mother in the 70s, I couldn’t possibly support this referendum if it did.

Parents’ failings

Article 42.5 of the Irish Constitution provides the basis for our child protection system and makes clear that the State must step in to protect children when their parents fail for ‘physical or moral reasons’.  This can only happen in exceptional circumstances.  The Children’s Referendum merely updates this language and stops us from just focusing on the failings of parents.  It also mentions the ‘safety and welfare of children’.

It’s simply wrong to suggest that this referendum gives the State more power.  It won’t result in more children entering the care system and in no way reduce the role of the family (the Catholic Bishops’ Conference have come out and said so).  Children only end up in care for cases of serious neglect, sexual and physical abuse.  This will not change.  Instead, the Children’s Referendum will force the State to explore other alternatives before taking a child into care, including family supports. This is what we have been campaigning for over the last ten years and the Government is finally delivering.

The Children’s Referendum will also deal with the hundreds of children that are drifting in long-term foster care.  They have no prospect of being cared for by their birth parents and yet can’t be adopted because of the constitutional definition of the family.  Many of these children crave a stable and permanent family home, and strongly desire to be adopted by their foster families, with whom they have grown up.

The no campaign

No campaigners say that this issue can be dealt with by ordinary legislation.  Others suggest, rather alarmingly, that babies will be stolen from maternity wards and forcibly adopted against the wishes of the birth parents.  John Waters, also rather cynically, claims that it’s a cost saving measure by our Government to ensure it doesn’t have to pay foster parents every week.  Paradoxically, he also suggests that foster parents are only in it for the money!  None of this is true.

The fact remains that this situation cannot be resolved through ordinary legislation because the Government already tried to do this with the 1988 Adoption Act.  The impetus for this change isn’t about cutting budgets.  Groups representing children in care and foster parents have campaigned for this change and are also supporting a Yes vote.

Irish voters have an important choice to make on Saturday. We can take this opportunity to make sure our Constitution provides the best possible protection for children and families in Ireland.  We can make a statement, as a people, that children matter by voting Yes. Or we can choose to believe the misinformation. We can choose to believe extremists, forget that EastEnders is fiction and that we are no longer part of the UK.

You decide.

Tanya Ward is the Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance. The Children’s Rights Alliance is part of the Yes for Children national campaign, also led by Barnardos, the ISPCC and Campaign for Children, which is calling for a YES vote in the Children’s Referendum.  Yes for Children believes this referendum is an historic opportunity to ensure that this generation, and future generations, of children in Ireland are better protected, respected and heard.

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Tanya Ward

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