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Speech on the Thirty-First Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Bill

2nd October 2012 - Colm Burke TD

I welcome the opportunity to express my staunch support for the proposal which will be decided by the people by way of referendum on 10 November. It is a long awaited and much needed initiative and I commend the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, the Taoiseach and the Cabinet on bringing it forward within 18 months of coming to office. I also welcome the cross-party support for the proposal in the House and the broader universal support from agencies working in the area of child welfare. Such a consensus is probably unique in the history of the State.

Having everybody on the same side is not, however, without its own difficulties and challenges. Above all, we must guard against any complacency in the lead-up to the referendum in terms of getting the information out to voters. Other speakers have referred to the implications of the McKenna judgment and the requirement that equal coverage be given to both sides in any referendum campaign. There is no room for complacency in this campaign and we must work to ensure a high turnout. In this regard, I welcome the decision to hold the vote on a Saturday, a practice I hope will be continued in other referenda and general and local elections. It will be particularly helpful to students who live away from home during the week, many of whom will have strong views on this issue. I urge everybody to exercise their right to vote on the proposal.

The objective of the proposed amendment is to ensure that children are visible, protected, listened to, cherished and valued in our society. In striving to meet that objective, it was important that the proposal should reaffirm the special protection afforded to the family in our society. In the vast majority of cases, the best place for children, as we all acknowledge, is within a loving and supportive family home. The proposal seeks to address the minority of cases where children are not protected, heard, valued and cherished, children who, in the past, were forced to suffer in silence. The amendment will afford children in that minority a second chance. It was also important that care was taken to ensure the rights and duties of parents are not adversely affected by the proposal. The Government is to be commended on getting the balance right in this regard.

The amendment seeks to protect the minority of children in our society whose plight has too often been ignored. People were outraged at the revelations in the Kilkenny case, Roscommon case, Kelly Fitzgerald case and many others. When the publicity died down after a few weeks, however, nothing was actually done.

I am glad the referendum will result in change by offering citizens an opportunity to insert in the Constitution certain rights and protections for children. Given that 30,000 child protection concerns were reported to the welfare services, including 1,600 child welfare concerns, this is clearly a major issue.

I am pleased to note an extensive information programme will be rolled out by the Government. We all have a responsibility to get our message across. Given that so many people are on one side of the debate, it is unlikely that all the issues will be teased out in full on television and radio. We must ensure sufficient information is available to ensure citizens are informed when they cast their vote on 10 November. I strongly support the proposed constitutional amendment.

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