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Senator Van Turnhout has campaigned for children’s rights in Ireland for many years and welcomes the upcoming referendum on children’s rights on November 10, viewing it as “absolutely necessary”. Speaking in the Seanad recently she stated: “The opportunity of this referendum brings us closer to securing constitutional change that will make a real and positive difference to all children in Ireland.”

Yet, asked whether she feels the Bill will sufficiently eliminate the deficiencies surrounding the legal entitlements of the child in Ireland, the Senator admits that while it “strikes a good balance”, she would have liked it to extend further in a number of areas, particularly with regard to the right to identity. She feels strongly that the 50,000 adopted people in Ireland should have legal right to their birth certificate, permission to legally trace their identity and additional information, such as access to medical history. While she did not table any amendments, she intends to utilise her role as a Senator to “put certain facts on the record” and ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to “give certain commitments in order to address where we could have gone further”.

Achieving a yes vote

“I have always been conscious that the Constitution of Ireland is there for the people”. The constitutional amendment is needed to “overcome legal roadblocks that are preventing us from fully protecting children and supporting families; that is hampering us from making decisions that are child-centred; and is preventing us from reforming our adoption laws.” In other countries their constitutions can often be “visionary” and outline what they want or aim to achieve whereas in Ireland, the Constitution is very much “our bedrock” the Senator affirms. “It is our role as legislators, to be ambitious on behalf of the people of Ireland”. The Senator intends to pursue areas where she believes progress can be made and the referendum, in this regard, is “a really strong starting point”. Should a yes vote pass on November 10, the first element that needs to be pursued, from a legislative basis, is the drafting of a Children’s Bill which would serve to “articulate the areas that need to be furthered”.

“I also think we should not underestimate the power of the people. If the people of Ireland, on November 10, agree that children have rights, it will be interesting to see how that message will disseminate into policy.” One of the most significant aspects of the referendum, according to the Senator, is that, in the case where the people of Ireland vote yes, there will be a “move from the child being an object into being a human being”.

Following by example

Are there any countries in particular that Ireland could aspire to in terms of children’s rights? “The South African Constitution has excellent wording but the difficultly is that it is more visionary”. Ireland itself is “pretty good on paper when it comes to children’s rights, the difficulty arises when it comes to implementation”. Furthermore, New Zealand has outstanding childcare provision for children. One of the reasons the Senator has hoped for so long that Ireland would strengthen children’s rights is the “impact [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][it will have] on children in Ireland”. She hopes for Ireland to “become an exemplar to other countries” and be “the best place in the world to be a child”. We can do this by showing firstly, that “we take children’s rights seriously” and secondly, that “we can strike a balance between our economic and social values”.

This, the Senator asserts, “is the Ireland I want to be part of”. Ireland “has always wanted to believe that we value childhood and children”.

It is therefore apt, the Senator highlights, that the Referendum falls on the birthday of Pádraig Pearse who urged us to “cherish all the children of the nation equally”. While this statement admittedly encompassed the entire population and not solely those under 18 years of age, the Senator stresses “it often evokes in us that we cherish children and I think it quite fitting”.

Additionally, she would hope “that the people of Ireland say yes, but say yes not as way to show that from here on we are not accepting excuses when it comes to children’s rights… we are shining a spotlight into every dark corner i.e. if a child is in fear or is not being supported, we, the people of Ireland, are saying this is no longer acceptable.”

Role of the media

Following the McKenna judgement, there is an obligation upon Irish broadcasters to ensure equal time is allocated to both sides in referenda. Recent commentary has expressed some concern in relation to this clause and suggested that the yes side may become complacent. Senator Van Turnhout said she would urge the media to engage with the Referendum and believes the media have a critical role to play. She mentioned the Referendum on Judges’ Pay, for example, where, although there was quite a significant yes side, the media were still able to produce a large volume of material on the issue.This time around however, “I am not seeing that strength or depth within the articles on children’s rights so far” which “I feel has far more breadth than a singular issue such as judges pay”.

While the 50/50 rule exists, “nothing prohibits any media outlet from informing”. The public too, despite a general awareness of children’s rights, “want to understand what exactly they are being asked to vote on” as opposed to generalities about children’s rights. “The people of Ireland, and rightly so, take their constitution very seriously and they won’t just vote yes for a feel good effect, but they will vote yes if they believe this is the right thing to do. They need to know exactly what the wording is, what it means and they need to hear many different voices.”

The Senator admits to be slightly concerned about complacency during the Referendum but assures that “politicians need to get out and talk about the referendum and “awaken that engagement”. Civil society organisations must also be active during the campaign the Senator says.One example of the work by such organisations is the ‘Yes for Children’ campaign, launched by Barnados, the ISPCC,Campaign for Children and the Children’s Rights Alliance, the latter being the body Senator Van Turnhout previously ran as Chief Executive.

Cuts to social spending

I ask the Senator what her opinion is of recent statements that there is a contradiction between the Referendum and the cuts to social spending, to which she is keen to stress the difference between both areas. “I am a very pragmatic person and while I understand what is being said, you cannot put both into the same category”. The Constitution of Ireland, she adds, “sets our values as a country; it does not set our economic policy.” She also admits the Constitution has always been a barrier to real change in relation to children’s rights, for example, those children who wish to be adopted yet cannot be adopted. This Referendum will allow the courts to give a voice to the child and ensure their best interests are considered”.

Home care for sick children

The Senator has recently introduced a motion, along with a number of other independent senators, underpinned by the belief that it is in the best interests of a child with a life-limiting condition to be cared for at home and support should be provided to allow the child reside at home as opposed to in hospital. There are currently 1,400 children with such conditions in the country.

This motion she asserts, is based upon a three pronged analysis. It is “in line with government policy, is child-centered and makes financial sense, given the fact it costs nine times more to have a child in hospital than at home”.

“This is also in the best interests of children and is what their families want.” However, while the Minister intends to meet with some of the groups involved, the Senator is not convinced a solution will be agreed but firmly believes it is an area that should be pursued regardless of the predicted outcome. It is a “children’s rights issue” whereby the parents “try to do what is best for their child”.

This is “a constructive motion” yet the Government amendment to the motion, the Senator stresses, “was disgraceful”. “They cited inaccuracies, claiming that they fund the Irish Hospital Foundation, which they don’t, they give zero funding in this area”. That the Government can claim the HSE funded these programmes “was quite an insult to the generosity of the people of Ireland”. Additionally, the Government funds approximately 18 percent of the Jack and Jill Foundation, yet in their amendment to this motion they claim to fund it substantially more.

These claims resulted in the independent group withdrawing the motion to allow for talks but “we will come back, as a group on this issue because we feel very strongly that these children don’t have the luxury of time”. This is an “obvious” thing to solve according to the Senator, to the point she wonders why the debate is even ongoing. Parents with terminally ill children are currently “fighting the system, rather than spending the precious time with their child”. “I do believe everyone in Ireland would think this is wrong and would be quite shocked by this.” The Senator does wonder if there are vested interests in keeping these children in hospital. For her, “it is a warning sign that does not bode well for the health system”.

Internet and child abuse material

During her time as Senator, she would also like to help tackle the issue of child abuse material on the internet. In the UK and Norway for example, they currently employ a system to block such material, in Ireland however, “for some reason, internet service providers are very reticent and argue that it is more important to get to the source of the crime”, the Senator explains. She believes that it is the obligation of the internet service providers to block this content. Additionally, she is concerned that the EU is resisting the blocking of these sites. The Senator brought forward a motion on this last year and says the Minister intends to revert with legislation.

Direct provision

The Senator also says she would like to work towards foreseeing future issues i.e. “will there be another Ryan report in 20 years time, something that we will be shocked and horrified by”. One area which the Senator feels strongly about is the area of asylum seeking children in direct provision accommodation centres being provided for by the State. Under the direct provision system, asylum seekers are not allowed to work or study and have an allowance of just €19.10 per week for adults and €9.60 for children. “The reality is, these children are being provided with lodging and food but the conditions they are placed in are nightmarish.” These children are here for approximately seven years in “appalling conditions”. The Senator is considering how to shine a spotlight on this issue. “People in Ireland may seem unsympathetic to this cause but I think this is only the case because they don’t know the reality of what direct provision accommodation is.”

Retaining her interest and activity in relation to children’s rights, the Senator is pursuing unique areas. She also admits that by not having an actual constituency, her “constituents” are NGOs and civil society organisations. Because of this, she feels she can in her role as Senator, raise some of the more sensitive issues. The Senator adds that she is keen to make the most of her time and highlight these issues while also considering how she could approach the role a bit differently. She also wants to be fair and honest and adopt a balanced stance and so does not consistently vote with Government but instead consider each issue and decide how exactly she feels and would like progress.

With such devotion and ambition, I am sure Senator Van Turnhout will be instrumental in the advancing childrens rights in Ireland in the future.

Jillian van Turnhout is an Independent Member of Seanad Éireann and an Irish child rights activist. Jillian is the former Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance; former Chief Commissioner and current volunteer with the Irish Girl Guides; former President of the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) and current member of the National Youth Work Advisory Committee; member of the National Children’s Advisory Council; member of the Management Committee of the National Economic and Social Forum (NESF); former member and Vice President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC); former Secretary General of the ECB-BEC (predecessor to the European Youth Forum) and a Council member of Gaisce – The President’s Award. She is also Chair of Early Childhood Ireland; Vice Chairperson of the European Movement Ireland; and a Board member of Women for Election.

This article first appeared in the October edition of the PAI monthly Journal. For more information on how to subscribe to the Journal, click here.