Europe

Children's referendum: final days of Republic of Ireland campaigns

The coming days mark the final weekend of campaigning in the Republic of Ireland's children's rights referendum.

Image caption There have been 17 major reports on child protection failings in the Republic of Ireland since 1970.

The 10 November poll on constitutional change to protect children's right also sets out the responsibilities of the Irish state in maintaining those rights.

"As a society in the last 15 or 20 years we have gradually come to the sad conclusion that this is not the wonderful country that we always patted ourselves on the backs for and said 'a great little country to bring up children'" explains the Sunday Times journalist Justine McCarthy.

"It wasn't, it had horrendous nightmares."

The referendum on the rights of children has been promised by successive Irish government for about 20 years, following a series of child protection failures.

One tangible change, if the referendum is passed, will take effect in the Republic's adoption laws.

Married parents could consent to having their children placed for adoption if the referendum is passed.

Unheard voices

That was something previously denied to foster parents like Anne and John Rennisson, when two of their long-term foster children wanted to be adopted.

"They brought it up themselves at access meetings, they wrote out something for their parents but consent did not happen and so they remained in long-term care but they would have liked to have been adopted" said Anne.

"I do think that their voices were unheard and they were left in limbo."

For 25 years now, Anne and her husband John have cared for seven long-term foster children and some 18 short-term foster children.

"Wanting to be adopted was not an issue for most of our long-term foster children but the option needs to be there for them," she added.

"If the child is at an age where he or she can say what they want, well then why should they not be listened to?"

State intervention

Campaigners in favour of the referendum say it will recalibrate the focus of the Republic's child protection system.

"Instead of just focusing on what happens when parents fail, it obliges the state to act earlier to support parents and that's a very positive development" explained Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance.

"Children have a right to grow up with their families, it's not sufficient that the state only intervenes when a serious child protection situation arises, they should be trying to protect families earlier to keep them together."

The children's rights referendum is the Republic's tenth referendum in 11 years.

But what marks this referendum apart from others is the lack of debate on the issues involved.

All of the political parties are asking people to vote yes, however, not everyone is advocating a Yes vote.

'Contempt for parents'

"I think that we are sleep walking into a disaster" said Fr Brian McKevitt, editor of Alive, a Catholic newspaper.

"Running through this amendment, it seems to me, is an underlying contempt for parents."

"Parents are either ignored or they are presented as having failed or not being really interested in the best interests of their children and the implication is that the state really needs to take over the running of children."

There have been 17 major reports on child protection failings in the Republic since 1970.

"It's easy to say, well we didn't know, but there would always have been signs," Justine McCarthy said.

"I think it has been hard for Irish people to look at the problem and this is a very practical and tangible way of atoning for what we did to children over the years and the generations."

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