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van Turnhout on ‘The Time is Ripe for Children’s Rights Referendum’

You can learn more about Jillian van Turnhout on our guest contributors page.

The vision of the Children’s Rights Alliance is that Ireland will be one of the best places in the world to be a child. On 16 February 2010, the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children moved us that bit closer towards securing this vision, when it published its Final Report. Crucially, the Report includes all-party agreement on a proposed wording for a constitutional amendment to strengthen children’s rights and this, in itself, is a significant step forward.

A major stumbling block to realising our vision has always been the Irish Constitution – the fundamental law of the country. Written in 1937, at a time when children were ‘seen and not heard’ and where, for example, it was the norm for teachers to physically chastise children and for children to be seen as mere possessions of adults, it has become very outdated. A litany of reports, court cases, and inquiries, have, over the years, also highlighted the need for constitutional change for children.

Today society views children differently; we appreciate that children have rights and that they should be respected as individuals in their own right. As a coalition of over 90 NGOs working for the rights and needs of children in Ireland, the Alliance believes that the time is ripe for constitutional change. Strengthening children’s rights in the Constitution will reinforce a new societal view of children and set down a marker for us all: that every childhood counts and we have a duty to respect and protect the rights of children.

Though it has been a long time coming, we believe that the publication of the Joint Committee’s Report will help secure constitutional change that will make a real and positive difference to the lives of all children living in Ireland. We believe this Report provides the basis from which we can shape our future and prove a milestone in our journey towards becoming one of the best places in the world to be a child. At the most fundamental level, we want each and every child to have a decent childhood and the Constitution should enable this to happen – it should not be a barrier.

As the Constitution stands, children are almost invisible. The current constitutional barriers are wide-ranging, for example:

  • a child’s right to protection is dependent on the marital status of their parents;
  • a child embroiled in custody and court battles has no voice; and
  • many abandoned children have no hope of adoption.

Unfortunately, the State’s hands are too often tied and insufficiently empowered to support vulnerable children who are caught up in difficult situations, and safeguard their rights and ultimately their futures.

There has obviously been a huge amount of learning during the Joint Committee’s work, both as a result of the deliberations of the Joint Committee and also of the analysis that it has received from its legal advisers. The Alliance believes the thrust of the Joint Committee’s Report reflects the recommendations for constitutional reform set out in our submissions. As well as specifically recommending that our laws and services for children should be ‘in accordance with the State’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child’, the Report also mirrors our recommendations of:

  •  providing constitutional recognition for the rights of all children as individuals, including a child’s right to have his or her voice heard, having regard to his or her age and maturity; and a child’s right to such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being.
  • allowing the courts to make child-focused decisions that will be in their best interests.
  • recalibrating Article 42.5:
    • by creating an equitable standard of protection for all children, including the right to have their welfare regarded as paramount;
    • to sufficiently empower the State to intervene in a proportionate, and timely, manner to support families in fulfilling their duty to vindicate the rights of their child;
    • to address the roadblocks that are currently impeding the effective operation of the child protection, care and adoption systems; and
    • to allow for the adoption of children of marital families where the child has been abandoned, and where this is in the best interests of the child.

We have been talking about constitutional reform for over 30 years: since it was first debated in the Oireachtas in 1976. We’ve done enough talking. It is now time for action and change. Ultimately, children in Ireland deserve that their rights be vindicated in their Constitution.

The Alliance is currently compiling a Briefing Note, which will provide an overview of the Committee’s Report for its member organisations. This will be published on our website in the coming week. The Alliance will continue to call on Government to show their commitment to children and name a date for a referendum on children’s rights.

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