Fine Gael TD for Galway West & Mayo South

Thirty-first Amendment of the Constitution (Children’s Rights) Bill 2012

Thirty-first Amendment of the Constitution (Children’s Rights) Bill 2012

The amendment proposed by this bill and to be put to the People is one which has been a long time coming. It is particularly timely given that this year marks the twentieth anniversary of Ireland’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This Convention contains several principles focusing on the best interest of the child, the right of the child to be heard and the child’s right to life, survival and development. The amendment proposed for November 10th will help ensure our Constitution helps us as a nation to live up to these noble and fundamental principles. 

The Constitution as an espousal of our ideas and values defines our nation. To a large extent, time and constructive consideration are of the utmost importance when amendments to it are at issue.

No one can argue that time and careful consideration has not been given to this amendment. The debate has been on-going for twenty years now with contributions from legislators, legal experts, policy-makers and NGOs all seeking to redress the imbalance. The Constitutional Review Group, the All Party Oireachtas Committees and others have produced over a dozen reports on the matter and I believe much of this work is reflected in the finalised proposed amendment before us.

There are many reasons to support this amendment, not least because it will enshrine the independent rights of children and redress the imbalance which currently favours the rights of parents and family over children. This imbalance will be remedied as the State, through its agencies such as social workers and health practitioners, will be explicitly empowered to intervene in cases where a child’s rights are being neglected or trampled on.

Furthermore, the amendment will for the first time end the unconscionable situation whereby children have been treated differently on the basis of their parents’ marital status. It will also bring to an end the situation whereby some children have spent most of their childhood in foster care because of the ban on the voluntary adoption of children of married parents.

This week the Dáil debated a motion on the Magdalene Laundries which was but one tragic and shameful chapter of our recent history. Together, with the Ryan and Murphy reports into abuse of children either in parishes or institutions, it is beyond doubt that the rights of some children have been ignored and disregarded. This neglect went on to have profound implications and negative effects as the affected children reached adulthood.

The amendment to include the new Article 42 (a) will enable us as a society to prevent the traumatic and harrowing events of the past by ensuring state intervention to uphold and defend the welfare and safety of any child in the event of parental failure.

By explicitly stating and recognising the natural rights of children we are setting ourselves a high standard which should be common sense to any society which values, cherishes and protects its citizens, especially its vulnerable ones.  

Despite the broad support for this amendment from all political parties and most NGOs and children’s charities we would be foolish to believe that it is without its detractors. Some have espoused genuinely held points; others have peddled complete nonsense such as the claim that if this amendment is passed your children can be taken off you on the basis of a phone call. Others still have castigated the amendment and view it in a similar light to the Mother and Child Scheme of some sixty years ago on the basis that it seemingly interferes in family life.

Opponents in the latter category seem to have a difficulty in an Ireland which no longer imposes a morality based upon on a single religion but rather works to safeguard child welfare and vindicate the rights of children as human beings through a combination of legislation and constitutional amendments based on internationally recognised and best practice standards.

This amendment should not be viewed as a standalone measure – it is the latest in a suite of measures designed to prioritise child welfare and rectify the grave mistakes of the past. Already in the short time it has been in office this Government has introduced other significant legislative measures including the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) bill and the National Vetting Bureau Bill. These will be joined by the Children’s First Bill which will clarify and strengthen procedures to guide those citizens working with children.

These legislative bills, the wording of the amendment and the introduction of a dedicated article for children’s rights to our Constitution are essential but so too are resources. If we are to succeed in upholding the highest standards of child welfare and protection we must also ensure we make best-use of the resources we have.

I note and welcome the inclusion of the Child and Welfare Support Agency Bill on the Autumn Legislative Programme. Recently a task force was established to advise the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on the creation and operation of this new agency whose sole focus will be the delivery of family support, child welfare and protection services. I want to commend Minister Francis Fitzgerald who is quite evidently working to reform this vital area of the Government’s work as well of course in her work over 18 months of this vital area of the rights of the child.  

 The Constitutional Amendment to be put before the people on November 10th is central to this work and I urge all citizens to support it.