Thursday, 19 June 2014
Address to Seanad Éireann by Ms Catherine McGuinness
It gives me great pleasure to welcome our distinguished speaker today. Others have spoken of the former Mrs. Justice McGuinness's illustrious career, which spanned so many different areas of Irish public life as a barrister, Dublin University Senator, president of the Law Reform Commission and, of course, a judge in the Circuit Court, High Court and Supreme Court. She has a long track record in so many areas of human rights, children's rights and family law reform, as well as on end-of-life care with the Irish Hospice Foundation, as patron of the Irish Refugee Council and, indeed, most recently as the chair of the expert panel on Grid Link and Grid West.
I am delighted she is here to speak with us on the topic of children's rights in Ireland. I want to commend Senator van Turnhout, who took the initiative originally at the CPP to suggest she would be invited to speak on that topic today. Of course, Senator van Turnhout has also had an impressive record on children's rights and I know both she and Ms McGuinness played pivotal roles in the passage of the children's rights referendum in November 2012.
Senator Leyden and others have talked about the history of the lack of protection of children's rights. If one looks back, of course, it was following Ms McGuinness's own investigation into the horrific Kilkenny incest case in 1993 that the first call for an amendment on children's rights in the Constitution was made. Certainly, there was a very strong need for that referendum, in particular to safeguard the position of children of marital parents who, as has been said, were unable to be adopted. It is the amendment that has changed that situation.
The State has a long record of failings. Senator Naughten asked a question about the cause of these failings towards children and the lack of protection of children. I believe some of it has to do with culture and one cannot just blame State institutions or, indeed, religious institutions. The State handed over responsibility in so many ways for the welfare and education of children to religious institutions over the years, yet the State was failing to ensure adequate supervision in those institutions. It is also important to say this culture extended to families and to the private setting. It was families who gave up their daughters into Magdalen institutions and into mother and baby homes, as we know. There is a huge issue about the cause of this and one cannot lay blame either at the door of the church or the State alone. There was clearly a cultural conservatism, a cultural view of women and children and a view of sexual morality in particular that meant that the treatment of children and of women was very lacking in terms of the protection of their rights.
Things did begin to change in the 1980s with the very important Status of Children Act but also with the hugely important practical change made by the introduction of the allowance for single mothers, which, at one move, removed this awful dependency whereby women who were thrown out of their homes had nowhere to go. I know that, certainly in the 1970s, even where mother and baby homes were not available, in some areas schemes were being run by other entities such as NGOs and perhaps by councils, where women would go into private families who were willing to take them in where their own families had thrown them out. There is a huge array of bad treatment and neglect of women who became pregnant outside of marriage that still has to be exposed.
I listened very carefully to what Ms McGuinness said about the media frenzy and what we would call in criminology the moral panic that often arises when something like the Tuam case comes to light. She is absolutely right that there is a danger that we descend far too quickly into a search for a scapegoat and somebody to blame. The merit of setting up commissions of investigation or commissions of inquiry, as we have seen, is that it produces a measured set of data and information for people. One thing we have learned from the mother and baby homes and from other reports such as the Ryan and Murphy reports is the need for information and for transparency around sharing of information.
I should say that in the past I acted before the redress board for many survivors of sexual abuse in institutions. One thing that really characterised so many of those involved was that they felt the lack of an identity and the lack of information about their origins, which is hugely important. I welcome the fact the Department of Social Protection and the General Register Office have released, for example, the death certificates of the babies who died in Tuam. That sort of information must be brought out. We need to look at the issue of tracing and the right to identity for children.
It is also fair to say there has been a strong commitment by the Government to children's rights and an attempt over a number of different areas to build up a framework of protection for children's rights to ensure we have a solid basis in order that the failings we have seen in the past will not happen again. This includes the appointment of the first full Cabinet Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, with Deputy Frances Fitzgerald and now Deputy Charlie Flanagan, the passage of the referendum in November 2012 and the insertion of Article 42A into the Constitution, the establishment of the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, and then the passage of a package of legislative measures designed to deal with the problems identified in the Ryan and Murphy and Cloyne reports and others. These include the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012, which finally closed that gap in the law by making it a criminal offence to fail to disclose information about sexual abuse of children, the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 and now the Children First Bill, which we will see being brought into law and which will place the guidelines for child protection on a statutory footing.
Other important legislation is also coming up. I believe the children and family relationships Bill is hugely important in providing a proper statutory framework for children born in other, non-traditional family forms, particularly children born to gay parents, children born through surrogacy and so on. I very much welcome the Government strategy, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures: the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People, which was just launched a couple of months ago and which sets out a clear strategy for the Child and Family Agency and others to take on board.
There are, however, a number of areas where we are still failing children, and Ms McGuinness has identified them clearly and eloquently. More needs to be done in regard to children in direct provision. What is Ms McGuinness's view on the single best way to improve the situation of children in direct provision?
The previous Minister of Justice and Equality has said, and we in this House have all challenged him on it, that his aim was to reduce the number of families in direct provision and to reduce the time spent, which is also important. I agree that we should also consider children in Traveller communities. I would add to that children who are at risk of domestic violence. Safe Ireland recently put on a very potent, visual display in Temple Bar - it was another campaign that a number of us took part in - to illustrate the number of children at risk of homelessness due to domestic violence and of violence and abuse within the home. That is an area where we still have a great deal more to do.