Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay urges people to vote Yes in Saturday’s referendum on children’s rights
This Saturday, let’s make our statement of intent. Let’s send the strongest possible message that we, the people of Ireland, can send. Let’s Vote YES. So our children will be better protected, better respected, and better heard than ever before.
Our Constitution belongs to us. We are the only ones who can change it. And when we do, our Government, our policy-makers and our Judges must listen. So let’s take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put our children into the heart of our Constitution.
Terrible things have happened to children in Ireland over the years. Again and again they have been failed by systems in which they didn’t matter. Perhaps as many as 100,000 children were sent to cruel, terrible institutions where they were neglected, tortured and worse. All those children had two things in common. First, they were all sent to those awful places by judges in a court of law. And second, not a single one of them was ever represented or heard in the courts that dealt with their futures.
There have been many reports about what happened to those children. And to other individual children. Like Kelly Fitzgerald, a little girl who was starved to death by her parents. Or the brave children of Joseph McColgan, brutalised by him in the most terrible way. Or the children of Roscommon. Or the children who died unnatural deaths while either in the care of the State or whose issues were known to the State. And many, many more.
When you read all these reports, two things pop out at you. The first is the word “culture”. All these children were damaged, some of them destroyed, by a culture in which children should be seen and not heard. Children didn’t matter. The reputation of powerful institutions always mattered far more.
We have to change that culture. An amendment to the Constitution, that puts children at its heart, that gives them an Article of their own, is a first powerful step on the way to doing that. It’s not the whole story, of course. We’ll need more resources, new laws, better practice and management, more accountability. All of that is being worked on. It must be underpinned by a Constitution in which children and childhood is truly valued.
The second thing that stands out from all the reports, over nearly thirty years now, is that we didn’t intervene early enough, and we didn’t intervene well enough. The constitutional amendment will change that too. It will enable the State – public health nurses, social workers, teachers, the Gardai, the courts – to report their concerns earlier, and to take action earlier, when a child is in danger or at risk.
But it will oblige the State to do it better. Proportionately, and in exceptional circumstances, are the words used. That means only intervening to the extent that is necessary to avert the danger. It means that if support around parenting issues is the solution, that’s what the State will have to offer.
What this amendment won’t do is simple. It won’t damage, or threaten, families. Everyone who works with children knows that the best place for a child to grow and develop is surrounded by the love and care of his or her family. We’re all struggling these days to do our best by our kids, and we’re all going to have to cut back on things like Christmas. But most families never cut back on love.
That doesn’t alter the fact that some children need better, quicker protection. And it also means that some families need more support than others. That’s just a fact of life. There are no circumstances in which I would support an amendment that enabled anyone to deprive a child of his or her family without deep, pressing reasons. There is nothing like that in this amendment.
Instead, this is an amendment that I believe we will all be proud of in years to come. Ireland can be, and it should be, the best place in the world to be a child. For many it already is, and we can make it that way for each and every one of our country’s children.
Voting YES on November 10th will be a significant step on that journey. Let’s do it. Let’s put our children in the heart of our Constitution.