The Children’s Referendum: The Oireachtas Debates

The debates that took place in the Dáil and Seanad (known collectively as the Oireachtas) on the wording of the children’s constitutional amendment reflect similar debates that have been occurring over recent weeks on the wording of the amendment that will go before the people (see here). There was no direct opposition to the amendment, but there had been some (failed) attempts to expand the scope of the amendment.

In introducing the Thirty-First Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Bill 2012, the Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald stated:

The Bill I have brought to the House will allow for one of the most important referendums in the history of the State….The values it [the Constitution] espouses and rights it provides are so intrinsically connected with being a citizen of this nation that we rarely question from where those rights and values come. The only time the average person really needs to pay direct attention to the Constitution is when it is discovered to be lacking or when he or she needs to rely on it to protect his or her rights. In the case of the children of the State, it is lacking.

The focus in introducing the Amendment was the protection of those most in need of protection. Minister Fitzgerald herself notes that this amendment will generally only affect a very small number of children. The Taoiseach’s comments broadly reflect thecomments of the Minister for Children, as regards protecting children who are mistreated, providing for an equalisation of laws in adoption between marital children and children from non-marital families. and in guardianship and custody cases. The Amendment has received the widespread backing of all opposition parties in the Oireachtas, including Fianna FailSinn Fein,

Fianna Fail had proposed a number of limited amendments due to concerns around the strength of the wording. Sinn  Fein raised some concerns about the lack of legislation in place that would further elaborate on the wording of the amendment, in particular defining what the ‘natural and imprescriptible’ rights of the child are and concern at the voice of the child being limited to protection/guardianship disputes.  Sinn Fein also raised concerns (and here) about the narrow scope of the amendment and its failure to fully adopt the measures required under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. See also the comments of Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett (and here) on the need for the protection of socio-economic rights of children in the amendment.

Deputy Claire Daly provided an overview of the need for the constitutional protection of children and how limited resources is at the heart of the child protection debate, noting caustically

It is somewhat ironic that we have had five referenda on the issue of the rights of the so-called unborn when the rights of born children have been systematically ignored in this State.

Other speakers, both from the Government parties and opposition spoke, in varying degrees, in favour of the amendment, some happy with the wording as it, with others demanding that it should have gone further (see herehere and here).

At Committee Stage, none of the amendments proposed by individual deputies or opposition political parties were accepted, with the Minister for Children emphasising the level of consultation and discussion already that had taken place and the difficulty in ‘crafting’ a precise constitutional formula that would be broadly welcomed. Focusing in particular on the limits of the voice of children to be heard in a much broader array of settings (see here and here), the Minister stating that a wider recognition and regard for the voice of the child could be placed in legislation.

Similar sentiments as reflected in the Dáil debates were also evident in the Seanad. One of the key contributions to the debate in the Seanad, and possible reflective of the wider political sentiment, was from, Senator Jillian van Turnhout

I considered tabling some amendments to the Bill but after long reflection I believe the wording of the proposal before us strikes an appropriate balance…. Although I have waited a long time for this referendum I know that even if it is successful it will not be a panacea to solve all ills. There are many issues facing children and families today for which I will continue to advocate strongly, both inside and outside the Seanad. It is our role as legislators to be ambitious on behalf of the people and, in this case, on behalf of children and their families. I am convinced that a constitutional amendment on children’s rights is absolutely necessary. It is needed to overcome legal road blocks that prevent us from fully protecting children and supporting families, hamper us from making decisions that are child-centred and prevent us from reforming our adoption laws.

Amendments proposed in the Seanad to the wording of the Bill were not accepted (see here and here).

The wording of the Children’s Amendment has now (for all practical purposes) being agreed and can be viewed here.