IRELAND: Minister insists children's rights referendum to go ahead next year

[19 December 2011] - A new wording for a referendum next year to strengthen children’s rights in the Constitution is being finalised by Government officials.

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald says she hopes to secure cross-party support for the proposed amendment and to begin a national debate on children’s rights.

The absence of an explicit reference to children’s rights in the Constitution is having a negative effect on the welfare of vulnerable young people, according to campaigners.

For example, in court cases affecting children, the rights of married parents tend to dominate the rights of the child. This, campaigners say, has made it more difficult for social services to intervene in cases of abuse and has made it almost impossible to adopt children placed in State care who were born to married couples.

“There will be a referendum on children next year. I want to make sure there is a good lead - in time to make sure people understand and debate the issue properly,” Ms Fitzgerald said.

“A wording is being finalised and I have asked the Attorney General for a wording that stays as close as possible to the principles of the wording produced by the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution in 2010.”

Ms Fitzgerald said a draft wording developed by the last government shortly before the general election reflected inadequately the good work done by the Oireachtas committee. This committee’s proposed wording included a commitment to ensure married parents could consent to having their children placed for adoption; recognised the rights of children as individuals; and allowed the State to intervene in a “proportionate” manner where parents had failed in their responsibilities. 

Ms Fitzgerald said concern had been expressed by the previous and current Attorney General over the consequences of previous versions of the wording.

It is also understood that Government departments, particularly those involved in issues of justice, health and education, had concerns that the wording could prevent the deportation of parents unlawfully in the State and entitle children faced with expulsion from schools to legal representation.

“The most recent wording produced by the previous government fell short of what is needed. It didn’t reflect enough of the committee’s wording. That is the challenge facing us,” said Ms Fitzgerald. “We want something that is strong, robust and can meet the standards needed to protect children.” The timing of the referendum has yet to be agreed. It could be delayed until later in the year if a referendum is needed to approve proposed treaty changes linked to the euro zone crisis.

Another possibility is that it could be held with the planned referendum on the dissolution of the Seanad, due to be held next year.

Children’s rights campaigners are likely to be cautious about any plans, given that referendums on children have been repeatedly delayed by successive governments.


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