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This drama is shedding light on a big challenge Irish unmarried parents face

The storyline concerns two young parents who break up and have to deal with the fallout.

UNMARRIED PARENTS IN Ireland can face many challenges – and one Irish TV drama is shedding light on some of the difficulties they face.

TV3′s Red Rock might be known for its garda and gangland characters, but a recent storyline is showing that it’s also trying to focus on situations that many Irish people can relate to.

Characters David (played by Adam Weafer) and Katie (India Mullen) are from two feuding families – the Hennessys and the Kielys – but fall in love and end up having a baby.

Though the fact that David’s brother killed Katie’s brother isn’t something a lot of Irish families can relate to, the plot follows as David and Katie split up and try to navigate life as unmarried separated parents.

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There’s tension between their families as David tries to see his son, Luke. The baby’s christening and his surname are two particularly stressful experiences being explored in the show.

India Mullen said there is a “huge responsibility” in portraying these characters’ lives “as real stories that real people are going through and that people can relate to”.

“The father is not a legal guardian”

To prepare, the show’s writers, along with Mullen and Weafer, went to meet with barrister and information officer Beatrice Cronin from Treoir, which is an organisation that provides information for unmarried parents.

Cronin talked Weafer and Mullen through all the issues that unmarried parents face. She said that one of the main points of confusion is around guardianship of children, a situation that has evolved in 2016 due to new legal reforms.

“The main misinformation that we find is when the parents have a child they think what happens is the father’s name on the birth certificate means the father is a guardian like the mother,” she said.

That is the key difference, when parents are married they do become automatically legal guardians. If they are not married, the father is not a legal guardian, the mother is a legal guardian.

This means that “it’s only the mother who can make key decisions to do with the child”, such as giving medical consent.

This can often not pose a problem unless the parents split up. “They sail along no problem but it’s when they break up or the relationship ends, they separate and the father usually realises he is not a guardian,” said Cronin.

Mullen told that one thing she learned “was quite how little rights a parent can end up having over their own child”.

[Beatrice] was telling us, without giving personal information, how messy this can often get and how much it can be really unpredictable, so it can sometimes end up where two parents can be fighting against each other through the child.

Parents can agree to sign a statutory declaration appointing the father a legal guardian. This must be signed in the presence of a peace commissioner.

“That piece of paper is very important, it’s important that the father keeps that safe,” said Cronin, who has heard stories about this document going missing and leading to issues.

She said that “India and Adam couldn’t believe there is not a central register” for this document.

New legislation brings changes

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This year, there have been some changes in the area of guardianship. Landmark family law reform under the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015, which was commenced this year, will see unmarried fathers who have lived with the mother of their child for over a year being granted automatic guardianship.

It applies to unmarried fathers who have lived with a partner for 12 consecutive months, including three months after the birth of the child.

In addition, if a step-parent or (cohabiting) partner has been in loco parentis (acting in place of a parent) for more than two years, they can also apply to become a guardian.

“I think society is moving towards addressing modern family forms – blended families,” said Cronin.

Indeed, the Minister behind the legislation, Frances Fitzgerald, said the reforms “offer 21st-century solutions for 21st-century issues”.

However, the new measures are not retrospective, so fathers will have to wait a year – until 18 January 2017 – for them to kick in.

“A tricky situation”

david katie Source: YouTube

Mullen said of the on-screen relationship between her and Weafer’s characters:

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“They have quite a tricky situation because they have a very complicated relationship between their two families, so the fact that now the two families are tied together through this child is quite an issue for both families.”

But she said that in the show, both families are behind Kate and David, so “they do have a support network”. However, “there is a huge pressure basically on them to see eye-to-eye, to make compromises”.

The fact they both have a separate relationship with the child “[is] definitely putting a huge strain on their relationship, and on their relationship with their own families,” said Mullen.

“Two parents and their own personal relationship, their own issues – it’s really quite incredible how that can affect a child’s entire life,” said Mullen. She found it was interesting to explore “how much our own personal demons can end up manifesting into a huge problem”.

Will this child bring them together, or will they end up using their custody as a way to get at each other?

Mullen doesn’t have children, but realised through this storyline that “parents have to be very brave, and single parents even braver”.

“It definitely opened my eyes to the fact if there is love and support there, that is the bottom line, the best possible thing. And after that, it doesn’t matter as much who is the parent or how many parents a child has as long as there is love and support there.”

India Mullen(Katie), Beatrice Cronin (Treoir) and Adam Weafer (David) India Mullen(Katie), Beatrice Cronin (Treoir) and Adam Weafer (David)

“Parents get entangled in these battles and forget the affect it has on children”

Red Rock isn’t the first show to approach Treoir on this issue, but Cronin said that usually it can be hard to get a family to talk to scriptwriters. “Often it is a very sensitive area,” she said.

She hopes that seeing this subject explored on Irish television “will help to raise awareness of these issues”.

“What’s very important, and certainly this is the core issue for Treoir, is to have the children’s best interest [at heart],” said Cronin. “Because often parents get entangled in these battles and they forget the affect that it has on children.”

I also think it’s very important to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the other party and understand the other side and how it affects the child, and how the child can be the victim in these situations on many occasions.

“So overall hopefully it will bring a better understanding and hopefully it will encourage parents to try mediation.”

Red Rock Airs every Wednesday and Thursday at 8.30pm on TV3. 

Read: Relationship breakdowns: 11 tips on helping your children cope>

Opinion: Irish family life has changed dramatically in just one generation>

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