I have been reflecting a little on the wording of the Children's Rights referendum coming up in November. Last night coming back from my brother's wedding practice (yes, we are finally getting rid of him!! Say a prayer for his fiancee, I think she needs her head examined, but anyway....), I was listening to the debates on Newstalk - Marc Coleman's programme, though someone else was standing in. If Marc had been there the debate would have been more robust because, while there were a few concerns expressed, most were happy with the wording and it went unchallenged.
I have a few thoughts at this initial stage, and perhaps the questions I am asking will be answered in the debate and I am set at ease.
First of all - do we need such a referendum? Surely children have the same rights as other citizens. When we get to giving some citizens more rights than others, is that not questionable? Is this referendum just an attempt to respond to recent crises in an easy way rather than just use the provisions that are already there?
Secondly, I agree with the change in allowing the children of married people to be put up for adoption - there are cases where someone who marries a widowed person cannot actually adopt the children because they had been born in marriage. However, I believe this should only happen with the agreement of the living parents. Despite the hard cases, I do not think the State should have the power to conduct forced adoptions. Yes, the wording says "in exceptional cases", but to be honest that will be abused by the State and social workers. Enshrining this in the Constitution is dangerous.
Thirdly, I do not like the idea that the State can see itself as being a substitute for parents, ie "supply the place of parents" - that is beyond the remit of the state and I think enshrining this in the Constitution is dangerous too. We have seen various States and regimes attempting to do that, most notably the Soviet Union. And given that the Irish government's recent history on child care has been appalling and fatal for some children (facts conveniently ignored by the media), can we actually trust the State to look after these children?
Finally, this wording diminishes the rights of parents with regard to their children. There are difficult cases, hard cases, but as the legal adage goes, "hard cases make bad law" - is this referendum an attempt to enshrine these bad cases in the Constitution (some of these articles are a response to actual cases)? If so we need to tread very carefully.
I cannot help but think of Chesterton's comment on socialism, applicable I believe here too since the government here in Ireland today is a left-wing government on social issues. He said: "Socialists are specially engaged in mending (that is, strengthening and renewing) the state; [but] they are not specially engaged in strengthening and renewing the family." Is this referendum about consolidating State power over children (albeit, I accept, with noble intentions), but striking at the heart of the family?
Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, said that this referendum was "not a charter for breaking up families" - I think she believes that. However I think, perhaps, despite her noble intentions, in reality and in practice it may well become that. We shall see how the debate pans out. Unless my concerns are seriously addressed though, I think I will be voting no.