The proposed constitutional referendum on the rights of children is, as the government has been at pains to point out, not one that should cause division along party political lines. The great majority of right-thinking people will surely have no difficulty in making the constitutional protections for our children more explicit. The real danger that faces this proposed amendment is that it will be too narrow and therefore limited in its impact. There is already not insignificant provision for the rights of children in the Constitution. Article 42.5 states: “In exceptional cases, where the parents for physical or moral reasons fail in their duty towards their children, the State as guardian of the common good, by appropriate means shall endeavour to supply the place of the parents, but always with due regard for the natural and imprescriptible rights of the child.”
The only proposed wording for an amendment so far comes from Barnardos, the children’s charity. While it strengthens the existing provision and adds another article which makes the rights of children “paramount” it is still not the substantive change that is required. It will be helpful in prosecuting cases of child abuse and in family law disputes it will give further and much needed protection to children caught in the middle of bitter disputes. This is good news but if it is truly to be a referendum on the rights of all our children then it has to go further and be a lot broader in its remit.
One of the early attacks on this proposed amendment came from John Waters in his Irish Times column (6th November), where he articulated the view that it will facilitate a “transfer of parenting rights from parents to the State”. I do not support his conclusion but I think he is right to draw our attention back to the role of parents in protecting the rights of children. No matter how big the budget, how plentiful the resources or how imaginative the legislation that might be based on any proposed constitutional amendment, the State cannot possibly be ‘parent’ to all the children whose rights are currently being denied. This is not just about the 5,000 children currently in the care of the HSE but about thousands of other children who are neglected by parents who for various reasons have neither the time nor the ability to properly parent their children.
Sadly we only become aware of this issue when it spills out onto the streets and affects our lives as well. An increasingly common manifestation is the senseless vandalism and violence committed by gangs of minors who roam our streets at all hours and in all weathers, and seem to have no respect for other people or their property. They are aware that there is little sanction that can be used against them, particularly when their parents in so many cases deny all responsibility for their children and their actions. This is the gaping hole in the Constitution that does need to be addressed. No parent, whatever the circumstances, should be able to deny that basic responsibility towards their own offspring, and with it a legal accountability for the actions of their children.
But even that is not enough! We also need to ask ourselves why things are the way they are? Why are so many parents failing to parent their children? Why do so many children want to do damage to their neighbours and their neighbourhood? Is it too much of a leap of faith to assume there is a connection? Of some comfort may be the fact that Ireland is not alone in dealing with these issues. Very similar things are happening in other countries but not all countries.
It is almost a cliché now but Ireland has experienced economic growth of a scale and in a timescale unparalleled throughout the world. Only last week the Lotto had to be raised to a guaranteed minimum of Two Million Euro, because One Million is no longer enough! Such has been the rate of change that our value systems are struggling to keep up with our new opportunities and choices. We have largely marginalised the Church and the family is increasingly seen as a curtailment to the freedom and individualism to which we aspire and which society tells us we deserve. In their place we have placed the Gospel of Prosperity which has nothing to offer to those who fall off the consumer express. Where we do show interest in the needs of our children it is more often in terms of the latest computer console or designer clothes. Even in the area of education we are more interested in school league tables which say more about our status-anxiety than the real needs of our children. We live our lives on credit, refusing to accept the inconvenience of waiting for our little luxuries and we worship shallow celebrity while mocking those who forsake material reward for moral integrity. These are the values that we are giving to our children!
Maybe we should be asking another question: Are the children who smash our windows and beat up strangers not merely the product of our own moral and spiritual poverty? Its easy to blame others but we all have a responsibility in building society and community. If the rights of all our children are to be protected then all of us need to ask some serious questions of ourselves. The Constitution is a good place to start but it is only a part of a much bigger picture. Let us hope we have the vision and the courage to do what needs to be done.