Thursday, 19 June 2014
Address to Seanad Éireann by Ms Catherine McGuinness
Ms Catherine McGuinness:
I am honoured to have been invited to address the House on the theme of children's rights in Ireland. It is a very happy occasion for me to return to this familiar and beautiful Chamber in which I spent many happy, if somewhat controversial, days and made many lasting friends among Senators of all political views.
The theme of this address is one that has received increasing attention in recent years, in particular, during the period of the children's rights referendum approaching two years ago. In recent weeks the controversy about mother and baby homes showed the lack of rights available to children in the past. I will refer briefly to this issue. The controversy brings me back to the Status of Children Act 1987 which, notably, was first introduced in the Seanad and legislatively ended the status of illegitimacy. I am proud that this crucial law was enacted, not without opposition, at the time when I was a Member of this House.
My first involvement in children's rights issues was in the movement for reform in education during the 1960s and 1970s. In more recent years, as the Cathaoirleach mentioned, the outstanding voice in this area has been the Children's Rights Alliance. I have been happy to assist as an external assessor in the preparation of its annual report card which surveys the extent to which policy promises concerning children have been fulfilled and highlights successes and failures in the light of the standards set in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As I am sure Senators already know and as the Cathaoirleach said and, in particular, given that Senator Jillian van Turnhout is one of the Seanad's number, the Children's Rights Alliance is a coalition of over 100 organisations working to secure the rights of children in Ireland. It works for the rights of children using the collective experience and expertise of member organisations.
I draw attention to some of the issues covered in the Children's Rights Alliance's report cards since 2009 because I have found the report card process to be fair, balanced and evidence-based both in its research and conclusions. Too much of the commentary on public issues lacks these qualities. The report card is intended to reflect the reality of children's lives and the influence of decisions taken at national and policy level on how their rights are respected or fulfilled or not, as the case may be. In surveying issues concerning children in Ireland in 2014 it is important to give praise where it is due, as well as seeking change where it is needed. During the years the balanced approach of the Children's Rights Alliance in the report card process has been recognised by those who work in Departments such that public servants are now willing and helpful in providing the evidence necessary to make a proper assessment. An atmosphere of trust has grown such that there is no need for a defensive response on either side. This adds very much to the credibility of the evidence provided.
I will pause briefly to pay tribute to the highly important work done by the former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, during her tenure. I do not need to go into detail. To have laid the foundations for the new Child and Family Agency is tribute enough. I congratulate the new Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Charles Flanagan, on his appointment and welcome his stated determination to complete the crucial programme of legislation which is current in his Department, although it might be said he has had to jump in at the deep end.
Government actions and policies that attracted praise and encouragement in the 2014 report card included the establishment of the Child and Family Agency, the proposed free GP care for children under six years as a step towards universal health care, the provision of funds for school building and the improvements in child literacy levels. The movement towards change in the patronage of national schools is also welcomed, as are the closing of St Patrick's Institution and the positive steps taken to improve conditions for children in detention centres.
It was felt that budget 2014 was fairer for children than some previous budgets and that good progress had been made on area-based childhood programmes. The extent of childhood poverty remained, however, a considerable concern, as did youth homelessness.
Today I would like to highlight the two groups of children that attracted the lowest grades for the Government in the report card. The first group is the children of the Traveller community, for which the Government was marked with an E grade. Outcomes for Traveller children are almost universally worse than those of settled children. Many Traveller children live in conditions that are far below the minimum required for healthy child development and this is reflected in their general health throughout their lives. In the 2011 census it was shown that although virtually all Traveller children were enrolled in primary school, which is good, 55% of them had left education by the age of 15, nearly five years earlier than the average in the general population. The percentage of Travellers with no formal education in 2011 was 17.7%, compared with 1.4% in the general population. Access to education is vital for this group of children, yet in budget 2011 virtually all of the teacher supports for Travellers were simply abolished. This action by the previous Government has not been reversed by the current Government. Discrimination against and bullying of Traveller children is more common than among other children. While we are contemplating the sins against the children of the past, we need to remember the needs and rights of these children of the present.
The second group, one which attracted an actual F or fail grade in the report card, is that of migrant children, particularly the children of asylum seekers living in what is known as direct provision. Here I should declare an interest as I am patron of the Irish Refugee Council. I have spoken on this issue on many occasions and have even gone so far as to stand on the steps of the Department of Justice and Equality in a demonstration - not very dignified, perhaps, for a former judge, but I felt very strongly about it. The conditions under which these children live are becoming well known. Perhaps one of the worst aspects is that there is no real possibility of their living in a natural environment with their families. They attend school but on a total allowance of some €9 per week, and have no resources for the incidental expenses of any normal school child such as school trips or games. They may be moved on to a different hostel and a different school at short notice. I have met and talked with teenagers living in direct provision whose complaints were not by any means unreasonable.
Tomorrow in Temple Bar, in connection with World Refugee Day, the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Geoffrey Shannon, will speak on the reality of child welfare and protection issues that arise for children in the direct provision system. One of the most vivid illustrations of the situation of these children is that in August 2013, Mr. Justice Stevens of the Northern Ireland High Court refused to return a Sudanese refugee family to this country under the Dublin II regulation because such a return would be contrary to the best interests of the children concerned. We need to realise what a disgrace to us all this decision implies.
I said earlier that the Children's Rights Alliance surveys policies and outcomes in light of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the basic international standard. The convention was adopted by the UN in 1989 following a ten-year drafting process and came into force in 1990. It is the most highly ratified instrument in international law, having been ratified by every member of the UN except Somalia and the United States of America. Ireland ratified the convention without any reservation on 28 September 1992, but due to our dual system under Article 29 of the Constitution, it is not yet part of Irish domestic law. This is despite the fact that the text of the recent referendum relied considerably on the convention.
The UN convention, however, is becoming more influential in the work of our courts, especially in the area of hearing the voice of the child, which is stressed in European child law as well as in Article 12 of the UN convention. This can be described as using the convention as soft law. In this particular area, there is a need to reassess the role in our courts of the guardianad litem, who has the dual role of expressing the wishes or voice of the child and of recommending what is best for that child. At present, our statute law governing the role and appointment of guardians ad litemis in part vague, in part relevant to the criminal justice system only and in part enacted by the Oireachtas but not yet brought into actual effect. The choice and appointment of guardians ad litemis purely at the discretion of the presiding judge. The quality of the guardians and the amount they are paid varies, but it is accepted that the system is becoming very expensive and is not satisfactory. There is an urgent need for new and clear legislation in this area and for the establishment of a regulated and trained panel of guardians. We need go no further than Northern Ireland for a good example. Such action would result not only in a better service but also in a probable reduction in the overall cost. Looking at the legal system as a whole, however, I believe it is more than time for Ireland to bring the UN convention home into our domestic law.
Before I conclude this address, I would like to make a brief reference to the planned commission of inquiry into mother and baby homes and perhaps into a wide range of other institutions. I have no difficulty in empathising with the many individuals who have told their stories on radio and elsewhere. I can well understand the need for certainty of identity. I speak from a background of knowledge, as I was a member of the Adoption Board for most of the 1970s and thus was in close contact with the pressures of poverty, social attitudes and overt persuasion that forced unmarried mothers to give up their children. I also knew the careful assessment of prospective adoptive parents. In the present tidal wave of publicity, one of my fears is that a grey shadow is being cast over these very adoptive parents, ignoring the deeply loving upbringing they have given to their children, who love them in return. I know also that whatever about earlier times, during that period of the 1970s, the then Registrar of the Adoption Board, Tom Wolfe of GAA fame, left no stone unturned in preventing illegal adoptions wherever they were found.
A few weeks ago, before the media focus on the Tuam home arose, I was asked to address The Wheel, the central charity organisation, on the subject of restoring trust. In the course of my address, I said that our present lack of trust in a number of areas in Irish life stems, I believe, from the manner of our response to the various crises which have beset our public life. Whether through the belated disclosure of information or through the action of whistleblowers, an area of wrongdoing in public or personal life, present or past, comes to light. Politically and through the media a crisis is declared and there is an immediate rush to attribute blame, either to individuals or to an organisation. Often there is little sign of balance, either in the hunt for scapegoats or in the actions that follow. Hysteria reigns in the more colourful parts of the media and political grandstanding wins much-desired publicity for more colourful political figures. This is followed by declarations of the need to take instant action, often in reality by the setting up of an inquiry of some kind. There may indeed be a start on remedial action, but the difficulty is that after a time the media frenzy dies down and the inquiry takes time to make its findings and recommendations. By that time, the will to change has considerably dissipated. This may be a bit unfair, but does it sound familiar? A recent study by Dr. Helen Buckley of Trinity College analysed all of the inquiries concerning children from the Kilkenny incest inquiry onwards. This demonstrated how few of the recommendations over the years had been fully put into effect.
I fully accept the need for an inquiry and the need to assist those who want to ascertain their original identities and tell their stories. There is in existence a great deal of relevant written material, which is held by the HSE and local authorities, both of which appear to be ready to provide this documentation for analysis. Much of the period an inquiry would cover is within living memory. It is, for instance, notable that journalists of more senior years, if they will forgive me, have provided a much more balanced commentary on the reality of Ireland both yesterday and today. These are people who like myself can remember the times before vaccination or antibiotics when children died of diphtheria and scarlet fever, outbreaks of measles raced through schools and institutions and families died one by one of tuberculosis and the times there were no welfare payments to enable an unmarried mother to keep her child. We are also able to remember that it was not the nuns who pushed the unmarried pregnant girls out of sight.
Inquiries can consume considerable resources. The State continues to be short of resources and the idea of seeking more resources from the taxpayer is distinctly unpopular. In providing the needed inquiry into the mother and child homes, my hope is that the Minister and the Government as a whole will think carefully about what are its real priorities in the terms of reference and will direct the proposed inquiry in accordance with the principles of the Children's Rights Alliance report card fairly, with balance and firmly relying on established evidence. Finally, if resources are needed for this necessary inquiry, let us be quite certain that those resources are not taken from the children who are alive and with us today, for example, from the resources of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. In the final outcome, I feel that the real priority is today's children and their rights. Just as we sit in judgment on our forebears, it is certain that we too will be judged on our response to today's children.