Seanad debates

Wednesday, 5 May 2004

6:00 pm

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)

I too welcome the debate on these issues. It is important that the Houses of the Oireachtas lead the way in the debate, addressing issues that are obviously of significant social consequence for major minorities nowadays. It is much better that we lead by having a debate and evolving a well-thought-out consensus in such areas, rather than, as has happened in the past, allowing matters to drift and taking a more laissez-faire approach. Practices come about purely because there is no policy in the area. It is more or less made up on an ad hoc basis. I have seen some of that and, from my perspective, I feel that some of it has not fully complied with the intention and spirit of our Constitution, in some degree perhaps having assisted in undermining it.

I believe Senator Terry gave some statistics on cohabitation. That area is changing, just as Ireland is changing as a society, much of it for the good and some of it not. I do not necessarily subscribe to the view that everything new is good and everything old is not so good. We had many values in society for which we must have certain regard to ensure that, as we progress and pass on our legacy to future generations, it is done in a way that will best underpin their opportunities and the potential for them to lead a well regulated and adjusted life in society.

It is my strong opinion that the family unit as we traditionally recognised it has really been the cornerstone of society over not just decades and centuries, but since prehistoric times. Evidence is now being produced that family units existed then so even in presumably uncivilised times, it was obviously recognised that society needed some basis for people to accord with each other so that it could regulate itself properly. Senator Quinn may have unintentionally ignored what is in the Constitution. It is worth reminding ourselves of Article 41.1.1° and Article 41.1.2°:

1° The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.

2° The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.

Article 41.3.1° states

The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.

The Minister put it rather well when he said that nothing in that in any way implied that there should be discrimination against other forms of family-type units which exist today. However, we must recognise that it challenges us. If we accept that the basis in the Constitution is a very good one for society not just 70 years ago, but today and for future generations, the challenge to us is how we ensure that cohabitees — other phrases have also been used — can be dealt with responsibly and fairly without, on the other hand, undermining the status of marriage in society.

Senator Henry alluded to the large number of single parent family units and any of us who have been involved in local authorities over the years will have seen a dramatic change. In my early days in local government, three-bedroom houses were generally allocated to married people and one-bedroom houses to elderly people. That is how it was. However, that has now changed completely and the vast majority of applicants are single parents, mostly girls, looking after their children. He or she is left in that situation in many instances by a partner who does not have the same commitment to the child, perhaps. People in that position deserve great credit and support. On the other hand, I have come across situations where applicants in that category are there specifically because of the structure of the social welfare system. Rent subsidy and lone parent's allowance is removed if he or she admits to be living with a partner. That is part of the laissez faire approach to which I referred earlier. It has been going on for at least a decade and a half or maybe longer.

It is also worth noting that until recently every child had a father as well as a mother.


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