Referendum 2012: Children's Rights

Concerns about children's rights are not new to Irish politics. In 1979, a referendum was held to clarify the legality of adoptions granted by the Irish Adoptions Board. This referendum passed without controversy, although it (and its partnered ballot issue, Seanad representation) are on the record as having the lowest voter turnout of any referendum to date. Although the referendum itself was entirely uncontroversial, concerns were raised in the Oireachtas, particularly by Senator Mary Robinson, over whether the constitutional amendment was designed with the interests of children at heart, or merely to paint over what had been a defect of the system.

Although the issue of childrens' rights declined in prominence in the coming years, it arose once more in horrific circumstances from the 1980s and 90s, when details of child abuse conducted in both church and state institutions became public. The outcry was enormous, and although several measures were taken to ensure these scenarios could never be repeated and to bring those responsible to justice, no move was made in this time to strengthen the position of children in the constitution. This finally came in 2006, when then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern announced his intention to strengthen children's rights in the constitution. This announcement was met with acclaim, and all of the main political parties included promises in this regard in their election manifestos in the next year's general election, which returned Ahern's Fianna Fáil party to government. Ahern initiated a Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, which released its final report in 2010, but by this time Ahern's successor Brian Cowen found himself dealing instead with the near-collapse of the Irish economy. The issue of children's rights once again fell to the background.

In 2011, Fianna Fáil were voted out of office and replaced by a Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Once again, the parties promised action on children's rights in their manifestos, and upon attaining government, the new Taoiseach Enda Kenny revealed that the Minister for Children, previously a junior ministerial post, would be upgraded to full Cabinet level. The position was filled by Dublin South East TD Frances Fitzgerald, who promised that the children's rights referendum would finally come to pass within the lifetime of the government. On 18 September 2012, Fitzgerald and Kenny announced that the referendum would be held on 10 November.

The stated aim of the Thirty-First Amendment to the Constitution is, as Bertie Ahern first said in 2006, to strengthen the position of children in the constitution. The amendment takes in many of the proposals made by the Joint Committee's 2010 report. The amendment would remove Section 5 of Article 42, concerning the state's role in "exceptional cases" where parents fail in their duty to their children with an expanded section shifting in emphasis away from the parents' duty and toward their responsibilities.

The new section would allow the state to act, as it has done in the past, in the event of parents failing in their duties/responsibilities towards their children, with the main change to this particular provision being the difference between "duty" and "responsibility". Adoption returns to the referendum with provisions included to allow for the voluntary placement for adoption and adoption of any child. The new amendment also states that the views of any child capable of forming them would be taken into consideration, with regard to the age and maturity of the child, in future cases of state intervention.

While the government, some of the Opposition and childrens' groups such as Barnardos and the ISPCC campaigned for the amendment, promoting it as putting the best interests of the child in to the constitution, the amendment also ran into considerable criticism. Some of this criticism, such as that contained in the Mayo Reform Movement's literature, use the rights proscribed in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (which Ireland signed and ratified in 1992) as scare tactics, while other bodies such as the Christian Solidarity Party raised criticism regarding how the amendment could be interpreted by courts in the future. CSP member and Cóir spokesman Richard Greene furthered his criticism through newspaper articles. Former Independent MEP Kathy Sinnott also spoke out against the amendment, concerned that its aims were different to what the government claimed them to be. The government, while responding to some of the criticism, largely failed to raise a strong campaign for the amendment, which encouraged nothing but confusion among many voters.

A new blow came for the government just days before the referendum, when the Supreme Court ruled that the government's literature - delivered to every home in the country days before, contained biased information. The website had to be taken down immediately. Speculation immediately began as to whether or not the referendum would be postponed as a result, but the government quickly clarified that it would not be. Irish voters would pass their judgement on the amendment on the planned date.

Map of the referendum results. The colours indicate which side won. The figures indicate its percentage.

Total Yes: 58.0%
Total No: 41.9%
Turnout: 33.5%

Highest Yes %: 73.0% in Dublin South
Highest No %: 59.7% in Donegal North East