Seanad debates

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Address to Seanad Éireann by Ms Catherine McGuinness

 

12:10 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

On behalf of Members of Seanad Éireann, I welcome Ms Catherine McGuinness who has been invited to address the Seanad on the topic of children's rights in Ireland. As chair of the external assessment panel for the Children's Rights Alliance report card, she is to the fore in advocating the changes necessary to secure the rights of children in Ireland by seeking full implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Her address is timely coinciding with the publication of the report of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee on Ireland's compliance with the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Some of the recommendations made in the committee's report echo comments made in the Children's Rights Alliance report card for 2014. I am sure the proceedings will offer an opportunity for dynamic engagement on these matters of common concern.

Although the address of Ms McGuinness will focus on her work on children's rights, Members scarcely need to be reminded of her long and illustrious career. During a multifaceted career in law she practised at the Bar and served as a judge of the Circuit Court, the High Court and the Supreme Court. She was adjunct professor of law at NUI Galway and has been president of the Law Reform Commission. She was also a legislator, having served three terms in the Seanad as a representative of the University of Dublin. In a sense, we are welcoming her back today. Her contribution to public life has also been made during her service on a wide range of public bodies. She is also a member of the Council of State for a second time. Some changes have, of course, taken place in the House since she last served in it. The spirit of reform which has both enthused and challenged us has been given some substance by a number of changes to our procedures, not least of which is the procedure by which the Seanad may invite persons in public and civic life to attend and be heard in the House. It is this procedure that has facilitated today's address. I have no doubt that the discussion with Ms McGuinness will prove its value. I again welcome her and invite her to address Seanad Éireann.

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.

12:30 pm

Photo of Hildegarde NaughtonHildegarde Naughton (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I very much welcome the former distinguished jurist and Senator to the House. Ms McGuinness has a litany of other qualifications and has held many positions of both authority and influence, any of which we could happily discuss. However, there is one experience I would like to address and she referenced it in her address.

Ms McGuinness was the Sole Member of the tribunal of inquiry into what was known at the time as the Kilkenny incest case. Her report was a classic example of clarity and made very cogent recommendations, the most important of which was recently put to the people and passed in the form of the children's rights referendum. I thank her for campaigning on that issue. The term "campaigning" is probably not one judges are comfortable with but, in this instance, it is easy to see that her career was one spent trying to improve the lived experience of our citizens and our children.

My question concerns the recent revelations about residential institutions such as industrial schools, mother and baby homes and the Magdalen Laundries as well as matters relating to forced adoptions and vaccine trials. When I first raised the matter of mother and baby homes in the House some weeks ago, it was on the basis of shock that such things were possible. In the interim, I have read more into the subject and it is surprising we were so shocked. We are obviously poor students of history in this country. The newspapers, the Official Report and various other sources at the time are replete with references to these homes, the conditions of those who were detained and those who died there and the appalling mindset of the public, politicians, churches and State in respect of unmarried mothers and their children.

During her long career, Ms McGuinness had much occasion to deal with and consider matters relating to social policy as a legal practitioner, judge, member of various synod committees of the Church of Ireland and head of the Law Reform Commission, LRC. Her career spanned bitter debates within and outside these Houses on issues such as contraception, divorce and children’s rights. I wonder then, now that she is "slightly" retired, what her views are on what were the causes of such attitudes. These institutions were answerable to Departments, which comprised different Ministers who took up office over the years and the permanent Civil Service, which had responsibility under the Constitution to set standards and ensure the safeguarding of our citizens. Where does the balance of responsibility lie for what unfolded within these institutions? How did cases such as the mother and baby homes, the industrial schools and the Magdalen laundries escape the attention of the State? Was it accidental or endemic collusion?

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I would like to give a warm welcome to a former Member and judge. She is welcome back to a House to which she made a major contribution during her time as a Member. She is an example to those who are ageist in their approach. She has brought wisdom to her work in every capacity as a judge, chairman of the LRC and so on. She is currently studying the wind turbine issue on behalf of the Government. All her work has been of the highest standard and we are delighted that she accepted the invitation to attend the House. Nobody deserves that honour more than her.
She was a Senator in 1987 and she referred to the Bill that provided for the removal of the word "illegitimacy". I was the Minister of State who introduced the Bill. I do not get much credit for that obviously but it was introduced by a Fianna Fáil Government. Sometimes the party is not given the recognition for this work. The Seanad was held in the ante chamber at the time because this Chamber was under reconstruction. My official was on my left hand side and we were all together in a small room. I recall the contributions of Members, including Mary Robinson, our former President. We got rid of the awful, derogatory word, "bastard" and it is illegal to use it. If someone hears the word on radio and television, it should be immediately reported as inappropriate. The word "illegitimate" was also removed. Every child is legitimate and has a right to life. That legislation was progressive at the time and I am pleased to record my presence then.
I disagreed with Mary Robinson who is a brilliant woman but she was not always that brilliant either at times. She made the point that Iris Oifigiúil recorded all adoptions made under the name of the person, for example, John, adopted in 1945 by Mary and James Smith. She wanted to get rid of all copies of the publication but I told her that was impractical because they were held in Garda stations and the National Library. She made the point because of the issue of traceability.
I compliment Senator Averil Power and the Minister for Social Protection on the excellent articles they wrote in this week's edition of the Sunday Independentin which they outlined their experience as adoptees. They are an example to anyone who is adopted. They respected their adoptive parents and they wanted to contact their natural parents. The Minister's case is sad because her mother is dead. I will support her if she introduces legislation to provide for a proper procedure for both the parents and the child to be contactable by agreement. They could come together with proper counselling. Senator Power pointed out yesterday that Barnardos or a similar organisation would be suitable as a vehicle to provide such a service but that is another day's work.
I commend the Children's Rights Alliance on its work. Senator van Turnhout, among others, is the face of children's rights and it was a wise decision by the Taoiseach to appoint her to the House. The presence of Ms McGuinness is an important day for her.

While I do not want to discuss Fianna Fáil in particular, the party was very progressive when it came to the appointment of Brian Lenihan as Minister of State with responsibility for children in the Cabinet, and he was followed as Minister of State by Deputy Brendan Smith and Barry Andrews. Then, rightly, the Government decided that, because of the work that was being carried out by those Ministers of State, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald would be appointed Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I wish her well in her new appointment as Minister for Justice and Equality. She worked on the establishment of the new agency as well as the referendum, which we all supported. It was a tremendous success, put rights for children in the Constitution and took a very progressive approach.

I note Ms McGuinness's wise words about the Tuam situation - with knowledge comes great wisdom. That situation has been around for a very long time and people were aware of what happened there. The fathers of those children seemed to have no regard whatsoever for the responsibilities they had in fathering a child in wedlock or out of wedlock. They walked away scot free while parents, grandparents and others stood silently by. The fact is that illegitimacy was one of the greatest crimes, or was regarded as such in this great democracy founded in 1916. We were a disgrace as far as that was concerned. We treated them abominably - that is a fact. The nuns and those who were forced to provide a service were at least doing something to help them in their own way, whether it was successful or not. The point Ms McGuinness made about medicine, including penicillin, is absolutely accurate.

As a young man working in an architecture firm in Roscommon, I visited an orphanage in Ballaghadreen. I was only just past my teenage years and I felt so sad for those children. They clung on to the staff they were with because they wanted love and attention, and they wanted a home. However, because some of them were born in so-called legitimate families, they could not be adopted, although that has now been changed due to the constitutional changes. They were there without anyone to care for them except the nuns, who, at the time, as far as I could see, were doing what looked to be a very good job. We could say a lot about the situation. The points made by Ms McGuinness were very worthwhile and, indeed, a wonderful contribution to the debate in this House.

With regard to the publication in the newspapers on Sunday of the details of all the children who died, I wonder how many families looked at those and asked whether they were involved or responsible for what happened in Tuam. It was not just what happened in that institution but what happened outside it. They left those mothers and babies there without any care or concern. They were dead to the world, and that is what others wanted them to be because they brought so-called disgrace to the family.

12:40 pm

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

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.

12:50 pm

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome Judge Catherine McGuinness. It was a joy to listen to her, but her words have provided us with a stark reminder and challenged us in this House for work ahead. I note her work on the Children's Rights Alliance Report Card, and she rightly pointed to the work of Tanya Ward, Maria Corbett and all the team at the Children's Rights Alliance. She also pointed to work of the member organisations of the Children's Rights Alliance which come together to provide evidence and put together the Report Card. I am delighted to welcome representatives of many of them to the Gallery. In fact, we could not fit them all in, so there are people in the wings waiting and listening. I could use up all my time listing every organisation, but I want to focus on some current issues. I want also to note the work being done by the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Geoffrey Shannon, and his annual report. His report and that of the Children's Rights Alliance provide an invaluable tool for me as a legislator and policymaker. It is good to see that the state supports these initiatives.

The programme for Government 2011 to 2016 set out an ambitious reform agenda for children and family services. Senator Bacik has listed many of the things that have been accomplished since then. Equally, there are areas of concern that impact on the daily lives of children and we need to shine a light on those. As I am sure Ms McGuinness and my colleagues in this House will know, I am strongly committed to pursuing the gamut of children's rights through my "senatorship". We have had in this Senate excellent debates on children's rights, most recently on beauty pageants and protecting childhood. In the autumn, we had a interesting debate on direct provision and valuing youth work. They were really good, informative debates and I pay tribute to my colleagues.

Other speakers have mentioned survivors. When I have met survivors over the years - we were campaigning before the children's rights referendum became a reality - many said to me that the real testament would be to see children's rights articulated in the Constitution of Ireland. Chief among the advancements that we have made was the passage of the children's rights referendum on 10 November 2012. Unfortunately, the enactment of the amendment Bill, the will of Irish people, has been subject to lengthy postponement pending finalisation of the second part of a legal challenge by Mr. Justice McDermott in the High Court before a full appeal can proceed to the Supreme Court. The delay in the legal process is a source of frustration when I think of the body of legislation that has been passed since November 2011 that could have benefited from a constitutionally recognised best interests of the child principle. I also feel sadness when I think of the number of children of married parents, many of whom have spent the vast majority of their childhoods in the care system, who have now turned 18 since we voted as the people of Ireland and are eligible for adoption. Their rights have been expunged. It is my sincere hope that priority is given to the delivery of the judgment in the High Court, that the challenge will be given priority listing in the Supreme Court and that it is ruled upon as expediently as possible.

While Ms McGuinness is before us, I want to address two specific issues that are facing children today and seek her guidance. Chapter 5.4 of the Children's Rights Alliance Report Card looks at children in detention. It states that, according to a communication that the alliance received from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, 103 young people were detained on remand in 2013 for 138 different periods ranging from one day to several months. We have to bear in mind that a young person may be remanded more than once pending the outcome of proceedings. The number of children detained on remand, particularly the significant percentage of them who do not go on to receive a custodial sentence, raises serious concerns about Ireland's compliance with the international and domestic principles of detention as a last resort for children, which incorporate a presumption against detention of children accused of criminal offences. I want to ask Judge McGuinness's opinion on the practice of the Children Court of remanding children for assessment despite section 88(13) of the Children's Act clearly stipulating that the court should not remand a child in detention on the basis solely of care or protection concerns. I want to ask her how the absence of a formal system of bail support and services in Ireland impacts on a child's ability to meet their bail conditions, with the consequent risk of their receiving a custodial remand for failure to comply.

The second issue that I want to raise is that of direct provision, which Ms McGuinness mentioned. Chapter 6 of the Report Card opens with a piece by Dr. Liam Thornton entitled, "Closing Our Eyes: Irish Society and Direct Provision". Dr. Thornton has done some excellent work, as have many NGOs such as the Irish Refugee Council and Doras Luimní. I put forward a motion on direct provision in this House last October. We were all at one on this issue. Unfortunately, the Minister then was not at one with us, but we will keep pursuing it and we have a very good Seanad cross-party group working on the issue. We know the high number of children who are in the 34 direct provision accommodation centres. Can Ms McGuinness give us advice on what immediate action could provide greater protection to children who are caught in the direct provision system? What could we do in the immediate future? All Senators in this House have agreed that such centres are not places for a child to be accommodated, especially beyond three-month or six-month period. I thank Ms McGuinness again for her address. She has given us many challenges.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Judge McGuinness is very welcome, and particularly so because of the words that she used today and the opportunity that she has given us to speak about this topic. It gave me the opportunity to look through - I would not say study - the Report Card of the Children's Rights Alliance. I congratulate Senator Jillian van Turnhout and Tanya Ward on the work done. I have been in this House for more than 20 years now. Within a few minutes of the budget having been read out, I try to do a report card here and invariably find myself writing the sort of things that the alliance has put in the report, which is "tries hard but could do better". That is what I always wanted to get in school.

I was struck by the number of grade Cs, grade Ds and even grade E minus, and those were in important areas such as education, literacy, mental care, the children's hospital, child poverty as well as areas which Judge McGuinness has mentioned already, namely, Traveller children and migrant children. How much we have to learn.

There is great benefit in having someone like Judge McGuinness come into this House, and it is also a reminder of the great benefit in the House existing. I am reminded of the work that went on here in abolishing the word "illegitimate" 20 years ago - the judge and Senator Terry Leyden talked about it, too. It is also a reminder of the amount of work that we can do in the years ahead, one of the principal areas of which being education. My wife and I were going through Kinsealy the other day and saw the sign above the national school there which said that it had been established in 1831. I think that was when free compulsory education came to Ireland. Often, we blame the British for a lot of things, and I am sure that there is a lot to blame them for, but the vast majority of our children in Ireland got the benefit of that education.

Judge McGuinness told us that we still have a problem with education for Traveller children and migrant children, and of course we have got a lot more to do there. My wife and I talked about it because we are fortunate enough to have 16 grandchildren. We see how enthusiastic they can be and how much they can learn from a very early age. My only sister had seven children when her husband was killed up north.

A couple of years later, she told us she was getting married again and that her future husband's wife had died two years previously, leaving him with nine children. My sister, with seven children, married Jim, with nine, and it has been a marvellous success. I mention it because it is a joy to have healthy children and to enjoy their company, compared to those who ended up in institutions, whatever they may be.

Last year, somebody who was trying to adopt a child from Russia contacted me. The person had met and bonded with the child, but suddenly the laws changed and it looked as though the adoption would not happen. In the last hour of the last session before the Christmas recess, six months ago, the then Minister for Children and Family Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, came here and managed to change the law. This morning I received a lovely e-mail with a photograph inviting me to the christening of the little boy, who has come from Russia to Ireland. When one sees such joy, one thinks of those who have not had that benefit. The Seanad can work on this.

In one of our supermarkets, a man came to me and said he knew nothing about Champagne but wanted to buy a bottle. I helped him find what he wanted, and he told me he had been looking for his birth mother for 30 or 40 years and had not been able to find her, but he had taken three days off and traced her to the Isle of Man. He phoned her and asked her if a certain date 40 years earlier meant anything to her. She was thrilled because she had been looking for him for 40 years. He told me she was coming into Dublin Airport and he wanted to welcome her home. I thought of how fortunate those of us who have been able to stay out of institutions are. While some institutions are marvellous, we have the record and we know there are always good and less good people. The fact that there has been much criticism in recent weeks of some of the things that happened years ago should not make us condemn everything. Much can be done. The report card tells us some of the things that can be done and what we hope to achieve in the years ahead.

How should we judge success in 2020, six years from now? What do we have to do now to sow the seeds of success and overcome the problems to which Ms McGuinness has drawn our attention and to which the Children's Rights Alliance has drawn our attention in its wonderful Report Card 2014? It should be compulsory reading for everybody, as should Ms McGuinness's speech.

1:00 pm

Photo of Kathryn ReillyKathryn Reilly (Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Like previous speakers, I welcome our distinguished guest. It is great honour for the Seanad to have her here and to be able to discuss the issue with her. In my very limited time I will speak on direct provision, which is another example of the failure to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Some academics and researchers have criticised it as the new apartheid, a system aimed at socially excluding asylum seekers, enforcing abject poverty and an abuse of basic human dignity. It is plain to see that living in overcrowded, confined space with little or no access to study and recreational space, lack of control over meals, inappropriate diet, lack of resources and rationing has had a negative impact on children.
Given that this is a debate on children's rights, it is apt that I lend voice to one of these children, a 12-year-old child living in direct provision, as follows:

Life here is not easy, especially for children. The embarrassment and shame you feel is so tense and terrifying. I now feel like the best part of my childhood is gone. How embarrassed I am to tell my school friends where I live and how sad I feel when I have to tell my school teacher that I would not be going on school trips or retreats. Now that I am in sixth class, more pressure is added because I will be going to secondary school next year. While this year I still have retreats, trips, talks and fun things to remember each other, it's a shame that I will be the only person in my sixth class not to get her own personalised hoodie with everyone's name printed on the back because it costs €25. At lunch time it's very embarrassing for me to open my lunch bag, afraid that someone will tease me for having a sandwich which has the tiniest piece of ham and a baby carton of orange juice. Direct provision has gotten to the point where children I see are getting bullied and teased, and are always alone because of their colour, status and, well, behaviour. Children are born almost every week into direct provision and every child has the right to an amazing childhood, and I definitely do not want to see their childhoods go to waste.
Those are the words of a 12-year-old girl in direct provision and it is very important that we heed them.
A study, Parenting in Direct Provision: Parents' perspectives regarding stresses and supports, reported that one parent said:
It's always rice and potatoes, they don’t think about nutrients, anyway the food is not for growing, but so that we will not die, whether you are healthy or not, it is not their business.
Another parent said:
There is no recreation ground for the children to play, the only place is the corridor, your room or other residents’ room and you don’t know whose room they are entering and what is happening to them. The space is small and you cannot hold your children in one room for 24 hours.
When the Irish Refugee Council launched its report on children in direct provision almost two years ago in September 2012, Ms McGuinness said "the recommendations called for in the report are practical and achievable". Has she seen any movement or progress since then? Has there been a concerted movement on the recommendations? What can the Government do immediately to upgrade its F grade on this? What steps does Ms McGuinness think the Government should take to address the fact that increasing numbers of families with young children are living in hostels and hotels due to the housing crisis, and the impact this is having on child poverty?

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

As I have time only for a question, I cannot compliment Ms McGuinness on her many achievements over the year. I thank her. I compliment Senator van Turnhout and welcome all the people to the Gallery who have come here from all the agencies under the umbrella of the Children's Rights Alliance and others. In particular I welcome Mina Phelan of St. Nicholas Montessori Society of Ireland, with whom I worked back in the early 1990s, before there were any rules or regulations on child care. This morning here I raised the issue of one of the EU recommendations that Ireland take action in 2014 and 2015 to facilitate female labour market participation by improving child care facilities and having more affordable full-time child care, particularly for low-income families. Thankfully, under this Government we have for the first time a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs who is responsible for child care, which falls between the two stools of health and education. Could Ms McGuinness comment?

Hopefully, Ms McGuinness will never retire. She said the most senior journalists provided the most balanced commentary. Her valuable contribution to society should never end. She should keep it going, and I welcome her. One of the rights of the child advocated by the Children's Rights Alliance and the convention is education. Yet preschool education and child care are very often neglected. When I mention child care, I am always conscious to take into consideration the rights of families who want to stay at home and the need for facilities for them.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

As a fellow legal practitioner, I welcome Ms McGuinness. My question returns to what Senator Leyden said about the abolition of the status of illegitimacy. I started that campaign in 1980 as head of a youth organisation. We held public meetings and collected signatures, and although we envisaged that it would take us ten years to change the law, it took seven years.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Good for you. I never heard the Senator's name mentioned in connection with it.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

As someone who organised public meetings around the country and collected more than 50,000 signatures on the street, I am well aware of it.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I ask the Senator to stick to the question as he has limited time. I am sorry about that.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

My question is about how slow we are to respond to the need for legislative change. As somebody who has been in the Houses of the Oireachtas and on the Bench, what would Ms McGuinness change to make the Oireachtas and the structures in place respond faster to the need for change?

It was stated that it would take ten years to change a law in this particular area but it took seven. There are many other areas where we have been very slow to change the law. From her own experience, what changes would she suggest?

1:10 pm

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is a great pleasure to have Ms McGuinness in the House. She is a role model for women of all ages in Ireland. As Senator Cáit Keane said, I hope she goes on forever because we need her. She speaks with feeling and passion. There are many politicians who do not speak with passion; we need passion.

I was elected to the Seanad in 2002. In 2005 I held public meetings as to how I could contribute best to the social and economic issues in Ireland, having set up a business that created employment. I saw the transformation in a human being when he or she was offered a job. It was not just about the money but the social interaction on a daily basis and how they grew in self confidence. As I have said many times here, it is printed indelibly in my mind, there is a huge transformation in a human being when he or she gets a job. While the employment position has improved we still have an unemployment rate of 11.8%. At my public meetings two of the main issues that arose were child care provision and abolition of the retirement age for people who did not wish to retire at the age of 65 but were forced to. I produced policy papers on both issues. My policy paper, A New Approach to Child Care in 2005, which I presented to the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party made a major contribution to the first initiative taken by any Government in Ireland on child care provision. We still have a long way to go on that because it is a huge issue. There is still a large gap between children who are born into families that are less well-off. In 20 years' time I think there will be a big gap between the children who have two parents working and those who have only one parent working. I feel very strongly about this issue.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We are in a timeframe?

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I just want to ask this question. I find it difficult to listen to all the criticism of the institutions and the way they looked after children. I do not know how a family could have done that to their daughters. Second, I would like to know how the men in Ireland have got away with fathering all these children irresponsibly and who are still doing it without any responsibility.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

A number of other Senators have indicated.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Go raibh míle maith agat. I introduced a Bill last year to provide for maternity leave for fathers, whereby the mother could share her 26 weeks maternity leave with the father of the child, if she so wished,-----

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I call Senator Aideen Hayden.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

-----as a way of getting the men to take responsibility for their children. I am not just speaking about those who have big jobs - barristers, solicitors, doctors and so on. The men of Ireland still do not accept responsibility when they father a child.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Senator is dead on.

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome Judge McGuinness to the Chamber and all the other organisations which have worked tirelessly to champion children's rights, including my colleague, Senator van Turnhout. Many people have mentioned the various achievements in improving the position of children but we have a long way to go. The publication of the NESC report today setting out that 23% of Irish households are economically inactive and the specific impact on the life chances of children directly relating to poverty and social exclusion, is an issue we need to address as a society. If we are to give real equality to children we have to look at other aspects, for the sake of argument, of the Constitution enshrining economic, social and cultural rights and, in particular, the right to a home. As has been mentioned, we have an unprecedented level of homelessness among families and children, in particular. It goes without saying that the position of direct provision is abhorrent. The position whereby only one parent can be determined to be the primary carer of the child and get sufficient social welfare payment in order to enable him or her to house that child, means that one parent does not have his or her right to parent or the child's right to be parented adequately protected.

I wish to ask a specific question in respect of St. Patrick's Institution. There were numerous reports into St. Patrick's Institution. I was very disturbed when Ms Emily Logan commented that part of the reason that children there were ignored was because they were poor and deemed to be anti-social. I believe we should have a commission of inquiry into what when on in St. Patrick's Institution. I am disturbed that we continue to look at these matters on a case-by-case basis. I believe a permanent commission should be established to examine institutions of the State and county homes and the manner in which they have conducted themselves in respect of children. What is Ms McGuinness's view on the idea of the commission having a permanent mandate of inquiry rather than having issues brought forward on a case-by-case basis?

Photo of Mary Ann O'BrienMary Ann O'Brien (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome Judge McGuinness. It is an honour to have her in the House. I have three comments and-or questions. With Senator van Turnhout, I attended a very interesting talk by Alcohol Action Ireland. It is very educational and was about using children's rights as a rugby ball. Senator Feargal Quinn asked how we could visualise a better Ireland for Ireland in 2020. I was shocked as I think everyone was. We all know how wonderful rugby or some of the other sporting events or the summer festivals of music have become to which one can take one's children or grandchildren. I will take rugby for the moment where daddies and mammies bring their little sons all dressed up in their Heineken jersey and the entire beautiful stadium is dressed up in the colours of the sponsor, the wonderful green of whatever particular brand of alcohol. It is not I that is affected or my 28 year old but the little child at that match is the one who is ingrained sublimely into their psychic. It is wonderful to have a glass of wine with supper but this country and its culture is in real trouble and we are damaging the future lives and health of our children by allowing sport to be sponsored futuristically by alcohol.

Following on from Senator Feargal Quinn, surely it is the right of our children to have a proper, modern children's hospital. This is another political football. We have listened to the experts for almost 20 years on the issue. I could make a long speech on the rights and wrongs of St. James's but it is also becoming a nightmare and an 18-month delay is already coming upon us.

I wish to raise an issue which is important to me and the Jack & Jill Foundation babies. The United Nations report on children recommended that children should be granted free medical care - I am speaking about gravely ill children - regardless of whether their mummy or daddy or adoptive parents have jobs. It is the right of gravely-ill children to be treated as citizens and given medical cards. This issue has been a political football in the Oireachtas for the past year. We have to wait a year until the expert committee has completed its report. Discretionary cards are allowed for children. If a child is born in the next month with a gravely ill condition or is palliative, those parents have to fill out forms and go through the stress of trying to get a medical card for that child. I want those children to have the right to immediate and free medical care.

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Cathaoirleach for the fairness and indulgence he has shown to all speakers in this debate.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Senator has one minute.

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am unsure how to address our distinguished guest. Should I call her-----

Ms Catherine McGuinness:

As I am an ex-Senator and see myself as among friends, the Senator is perfectly free to address me as Catherine, if he wishes.

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is very nice to meet you, Catherine.

I thank our guest and Senator Jillian van Turnhout for reminding me that politics is not completely futile and that there is light at the end of the tunnel in some cases.

I agree with Ms McGuinness 100% that it was not the nuns who sent girls with crisis pregnancies to the mother and baby homes but their parents and grandparents. However, it would not be right of me not to give credit to those who did not send girls away but who brought up their grandchildren as their own. I was reminded of this at a funeral I attended recently. A man who worked with us at home for many years, including with my grandmother, carried the stigma of illegitimacy like a chain around his neck and struggled to deal with it.

I will be bold and ask Ms McGuinness whether she could lend support to the provision of a memorial to the victims of institutional abuse. There are more than 130 such institutions around the country and I am not including asylums, the Magdalen laundries or mother and baby homes. We have nothing to remind us of their existence or that this abuse of children took place. It is incumbent on the Government and various Departments, be it the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport or the Department of Education and Skills, to provide money. If €30 million can be granted to redevelop Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork, surely we can provide a couple of million euro for the provision of a proper memorial.

1:20 pm

Ms Catherine McGuinness:

I thank Senators for their great interest in what I have said and their interesting questions, although it makes me nervous. If I was able to answer all of their questions, I might be the Archangel Gabriel. The questions ranged from reconstructing the entire system of the Oireachtas to solving the child care question and so on. I am delighted to see that Senators have not lost the old tendency to overrun the bell, as we always did. It is a tradition of the House. It would take a long time to answer all of the questions and matters raised, but perhaps I might stick to the ones that seemed outstanding.
I was interested in the first contribution made by Senator Hildegarde Naughton on the causes of the attitudes that appeared. Fr. Vincent Twomey is not a writer with whom I always agree, as people will understand, but he wrote an interesting article in today's edition of The Irish Timeson puritan attitudes in the Victorian era when to be respectable was all. Perhaps this might explain a certain amount as to why things happened. Unfortunately, it seemed to fit in with the Jansenist attitude of the Catholic Church in that period. To be fair, there was much the same attitude in the Protestant churches. I well remember not just Bethany Home but also other homes, for example, the Bird's Nest in Dún Laoghaire, and there was exactly the same attitude. Protestants, possibly, had even more of a desire to be respectable because of their minority position in the population. They did not want to let the side down, as it were. These things happened right across the board, but I cannot give a real explanation. When we started as a new country in the 1920s and 1930s, to some extent there was a feeling that it was a new wholly Catholic Ireland with an Irish-speaking people. The attitude played into that aspiration. However, I am anxious not to be too condemnatory of parents in that situation, as it was difficult.
As a child in primary school, I remember growing up in Belfast. My example will remind Senators of this year's D-Day anniversary. A series of soldiers were planted in our community and put in people's houses. We had British soldiers, white and black Americans, Poles, Belgians and a number of others, with the inevitable result of quite a number of children, many of whom were kept in the community and I know them to this day. Perhaps it was easier to keep them in what was a working class community, which is what my father's parish was like, in which there was less of a feeling that people needed to be respectable all of the time in the middle of a war. It was more important to survive than it was to be respectable. The children were taken in and brought up, generally by the grandmothers. If one examines different cultures, one may find different answers. Perhaps we should not be too condemnatory. I would be all for looking for the beam in our own eyes rather than the speck in the eyes of others.
To respond to Senator Terry Leyden's comments, of course, I appreciate the background work for much of what happened under the Ministry of Deputy Frances Fitzgerald was conducted by the previous Ministers of State with responsibility for children. The late Deputy Brian Lenihan was a personal friend of mine because he practised at the Bar and I knew him as a barrister. With Mr. Barry Andrews, formerly my local Deputy, he did good work in the area of children and not for one moment would I try to do away with the tributes that should be paid to them.
The adoption of illegitimate children is a real issue. I am most anxious that the legal controversy over the children's rights referendum should end. As it is obviously not proper for me to comment on my former colleagues and the way in which the legal case is going, I will not do so, but I hope it will come to an end.
Some fathers just walked away but others were driven away. This issue was drawn to my attention yesterday when I was speaking to a neighbour who described his experiences growing up in Bray, County Wicklow, and how a fair few fathers had been run off. Perhaps they were not all entirely to blame.
Turning to Senator Ivana Bacik's comments, regardless of whether one agrees with bits of Fr. Twomey's article, it is interesting.

There were schemes through which girls were allowed to live in private accommodation. For example, through the Ally scheme, which was established by the Dominican priest Fr. Fergal O'Connor young expectant mothers were placed in private families, in return for which they acted as childminders of children within that family. I agree on the importance of knowing one's identity. The late Judge Rory O'Hanlon, in a judgment in the 1980s, stressed the absolute right of children to know their identity. Since then, it has become a most important thing.

Several Senators raised the question of what we should do about children in direct provision. The simple answer is that we should abolish that system. I refer Senators to the report of the Irish Refugee Council on the matter. It would take too long for me to go into detail on what is contained in that report but it does provide a possible way forward. One of the main solutions is a reduction in the amount of time people spend in direct provision. To be fair to the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, he did make more of an effort in that regard than did many of his predecessors. Based on my personal interaction with him I believe he had a more compassionate attitude to asylum seekers and refugees than did many other Ministers and people in authority generally.

1:30 pm

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Hear, hear. The best record.

Ms Catherine McGuinness:

Perhaps rather than putting these families into these types of curiously institutional system, they could be housed in the many apartments and so on in NAMA ownership. This would allow them to live more naturally. There are not now as many asylum seekers as there were at the time direct provision was established. Some thought should be given to placing these families in the type of housing in which the mothers can at least cook food and so on for their children, and which might also provide them with an opportunity to work. They could then support themselves. It is not impossible to put in place a system that allows asylum seekers to work. That is as much as I can say on that matter.

Senator van Turnhout raised the complex issue of children being put on remand. In principle, the Senator is right that children should not be sent into remand, which means they are held in custody while awaiting assessment. That is not supposed to happen. The constitutional right to bail applies to children at least as much as, or indeed more than it does to adults. Adults are only refused bail for clear reasons which do not include awaiting assessment. Although from time to time people who are in custody are assessed, and there is nothing wrong with that, to have them taken into custody purely for assessment seems to be wrong, particularly for children. The trouble is that children, when given bail, are given a date for reappearance in court and because they are children they may not be good at reappearing in court on the right day or time. The vast majority of these children come from families that are not organised and are, perhaps, socially deprived and poor. Their parents may be drug addicts and so on, so that they do not have the type of support that ensures they turn up at the right time in court and that they do all the right things such as signing on at the right time at the local Garda station. If the person given bail is a member of the board of Anglo Irish Bank and is required to sign on at Irishtown Garda station at a particular time he or she will do so, but a kid from the inner city may forget do to so. We need to find some way of supporting these children, perhaps through the probation service.

I am aware of Senator van Turnhout's interesting piece of research into this area, which she kindly gave me to read in advance and was of great help in terms of her having raised this rather complicated issue today. I agree that these children need support. There is also a need for a speedier court system so that there is no necessity for long periods of remand. The problem may be caused by a lack of judges or inefficiencies in the system, but whatever the cause, the system needs to be quicker.

Senator Quinn raised the issue of foreign adoptions and the difficulties that have arisen in this regard. This is the other side of the coin. Historically, during the early period of the Irish State, prior to the enactment of the Adoption Act 1952, there were undoubtedly a large number of illegal adoptions. There was no such thing at that time as legal adoption. Many children were adopted by people in America. We were giving our children to richer people in America who had no children of their own and desperately wanted to adopt children. To be fair, many of them were in much the same position as are many Irish people who are now trying to adopt children in Russia. During the 1970s, when I served on the Adoption Board, the situation of Irish girls giving up their babies under all the pressures I mentioned earlier still prevailed. Leaving aside the rights of those girls, their babies were being adopted in a well organised way by Irish families. Many of those adopted went to happy homes. I frequently meet people in the street who come up to me and say, "By the way, do you know you were on the Adoption Board when our child was adopted?". The person then goes on to tell me all about the successes the child has had, which is wonderful.

Adoption is a huge issue. Irish people are now the rich and the ones looking to adopt. It is the other side of the coin. It is a difficult situation. I hope we can work through it and improve the system so that there is not such a great deal of difficulty in it. I congratulate Senators on their interests in the area of children and, in particular, direct provision. Senator Reilly also spoke about children born into direct provision and the lack of areas in which they can play, which is an issue also brought to my attention by Fergus Finlay of Barnardos, who had visited one of these hostels in an area in Athlone. He told me that next door to the hostel there was a huge children's playground which contained all sorts of play equipment, but the asylum seekers' children were not allowed to play in it.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is a dreadful form of apartheid.

Ms Catherine McGuinness:

Yes, it is, in many ways. A young teenage lad living in a direct provision hostel in Clifden in County Galway said to me, rather sadly, "Well, it's really rather dull in Clifden during the winter."

I know and love Clifden and it is a beautiful place. However, to live in an institutional hostel in Clifden with no money all through the winter would be pretty boring.

1:40 pm

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Hell on earth.

Ms Catherine McGuinness:

All the Senators have raised this question and have done an excellent job in bringing it to public attention.

Other Senators mentioned the need for improved child care. That is very important too, but I do not feel I have the time or ability to deal with that whole question here, except to say, obviously, that it is a very important area. If we are asking single mothers, or mothers in families where the mother is the sole carer, to participate in an initiative and suggesting to her that the initiative would help her - and it would help her - to go out and get a job, then we must offer a solution in the way of child care that would enable that to happen.

I agree with what was said about the slowness, sometimes, with which legislation goes through the Oireachtas. In the Law Reform Commission we have spent a lot of time nagging every Minister we could lay our hands on to move things along. I refer, for instance and in particular, to the mental capacity Bill, which I am proud to say was introduced in the Seanad by a former colleague. We need to improve matters. Some of the delay has to do with the way IT is used to draft legislation in the Office of the Attorney General. However, legislation not regarded as politically urgent can be put to one side - through no fault of the people who work in that office, but just because there is a lack of resources. Over the years there has been a tendency to stick to the quill pen instead of the computer. I am probably being unfair to today's people, but that situation lasted for a certain amount of time and resulted in the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Bill being drafted by the Law Reform Commission, rather than in the normal way. Perhaps the Seanad should ask the Law Reform Commission to complete the drafting process. For instance, there is an enormous draft of the courts Bill, which will try to reform the courts structure and which we provided some years ago. It is just sitting there and nothing is being done about it. The Senators should not encourage me to start nagging because I could go on for too long.

Senator Mary Ann O'Brien mentioned the children's hospital. I would like to see the project moved forward.

Senator Heffernan praised the people who did not send their daughters away. He will understand from what I said before that I understand that view and agree it is important. Yes, we should have memorials to those whom we neglected in their lifetime.

As regards free medical care for all children, the present Minister for Health is trying to move towards providing free medical care - or at least free GP care - for children under six years of age. Obviously I would like to see universal health care provided, and I hope that people will work towards that goal.

With regards the question of alcohol sponsorship of football or sports events generally, I would like to see this type of sponsorship brought to an end and there is a movement towards doing so.

Whether we will get social and cultural rights into the Constitution is a very big question. As Senators will know, the parts of the Constitution that refer to social and cultural rights are clearly stated as being non-justiciable. In other words, the courts cannot make decisions on whether those rights, or their limits, are constitutional. The question is difficult. A lot can depend on the views held by the judges of the Supreme Court at the time when such a question comes up. It is interesting to see that the Constitutional Court of South Africa has embarked on dealing with social and cultural rights of that sort. It has made some very interesting judgments, including one in particular on the right to housing or for a person to be housed. The court took the approach that it could not or was not in a position to say to the government to build house A in place B or to give detailed instructions, but it could say that the government must have a scheme or policy for providing housing and that the policy must recognise social rights. Even if we approached the matter at that level it would be an advance, but first one would have to take the right cases before bringing the matter before the court.

I shall end by thanking Senators again for their great interest and for all their very interesting questions. Unfortunately, I cannot solve all the problems of the world.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

On behalf of the House I express our thanks to Ms Catherine McGuinness for her thought-provoking address this afternoon and her comprehensive replies to my colleagues. I also thank the Members of the House who contributed to this debate. I am afraid the bell rang before I stood up so I must be brief. Debates such as this, and contributions such as the ones Ms McGuinness made today, are what the Seanad should be all about.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Hear, hear.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We thank Ms McGuinness most sincerely for coming here to address us here this afternoon.