When it comes to the care and welfare of children on this island, official institutions were generally very good with fine words and worthy sentiments but often criminally negligent in their realisation in the real lives of real children.
The Proclamation of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic read out at the GPO in Dublin to mark the beginning of the 1916 Easter Rising famously declares that the ‘The Republic . . . declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation . . cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.’ Those who subsequently ruled the Irish State betrayed this aspiration.
The 1937 Constitution of Ireland falls far short of the Proclamation. While referring to the ‘natural and imprescriptible rights of the child’, in the crucial area of education, it accepts in reality that there will be gross inequality between the children of the nation when it says in Article 42, ‘The State . . guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.’
The critical words here are ‘according to their means’. This enshrines an acceptance of the reality in capitalist society that there are massive differences between ‘the means’ of working class parents and those from the highest income sections of society. Therefore it follows that the education which parents from the different sectors are able to provide is going to be substantially different in quality. And this reality was very much evident in the expensive fee paying private schools to which the privileged classes sent their children who were thereby destined to occupy the key positions in areas like Law and Medicine.
The Catholic Church was very much at the heart of this institutionalised inequality. Religious Orders operated the most privileged schools turning out those who were destined to hold sway over crucial areas of society while the Church also controlled most other areas of education and presided over the institutionalisation of inequality. This is before we remember the dark underbelly of the institutionalised abuse of children in the care of religious for the State and the personal sexual abuse of children by individual religious. Neither proclamation nor gospel guaranteed the welfare of the child in Irish society.
What prospect then for The Children’s Rights’ Referendum? The big majority of people will welcome any measure that would enhance the rights and welfare of children, that the State should step in where children are suffering neglect or abuse at the hands of a parent and that anomalies in the adoption laws should be corrected.
But will there be really fundamental changes to the position of children in this society? The amendment ‘affirms the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children.’ But in the very same sentence it says the following ‘The State . . shall, as far as practicable , by its laws protect and vindicate those rights.’ The words ‘as far as practicable’ should come screaming off the page.
Currently in this State, according to the Central Statistics Office figures, in 2010 one in twelve children(96,000), aged 0-17 years, lived in consistent poverty meaning they were in households with incomes below 60% of national median income and endure a number of negative indicators which could include going without food or living in the cold. A further one in five children(205,000) live at risk of poverty. In the last year children suffered as a result of the reduction of Special Needs Assistants in schools and by higher class sizes. Parents of children with special needs daily feel the lack of adequate provision.
These grim facts are yearly being made worse by the ongoing policy of austerity by which ordinary people are saddled with the cost of bailing out the European money markets from the bad debts of the financial interests who gambled wildly in the private, Irish property bubble. Barnardos, the biggest non governmental child welfare organisation, greeted the 2011 Budget with the bald statement, ‘No bailout for children as Government digs deep into families’ pockets.’
The reality is that it is not ‘practicable’ within the austerity agenda to provide the resources that would be needed to really guarantee the rights of all children in crucial areas of their lives such as Education and Health care. Therefore the laws that would put the fine words of the amendment fully into place will not be enacted by political parties committed to the bailout and austerity.
By all means let us pass the Constitutional Amendment on Children but this will only have meaning in the fullest sense of the words contained therein, if we go on to fight for a society where the wealth and resources are in the democratic ownership of the great majority and used to cherish all the children equally.