Today marks an important first step in putting the wrongs of the past in relation to the welfare of children, especially those most at risk, to right.
We now have a Constitutional framework around which we can construct a better society for our children and ensure that never again will children be systematically abused and neglected in silence. Our children should be both seen and heard and this YES vote ensures that the apparatus of the State will be compelled to do both. I am proud of that fact.
The vote in County Clare was higher than the national average and for this I want to thank all those who campaigned with us in recent weeks and months. I want to thank also all those who engaged in healthy debate with me, both online through Facebook and other social media, and in person.
Changes to the Constitution were complex and it was a challenge to communicate widely the proposals and the reasons we needed the amended wording. I believe that the media too has to bear some responsibility for not engaging with the issues and the campaign at an earlier stage, particularly the national media. On a local level, I wish to commend The Clare Champion and Clare FM in particular for the constructive role they played in this campaign.
We have now had six referendums in the recent decades with a turnout lower than 35% and that is something that cannot be easily explained. The challenge with this Referendum was that every elected TD bar one was in favour of the proposal, while all the political parties in the State also supported it. It had the backing of every major agency dealing on a daily basis with children, and so it became difficult to have a genuine debate and teasing out of the issues. What we saw happen was extreme views take hold. These views were given credence by virtue of the McKenna judgment. This in my view had an impact on both the low turnout and the final percentages.
This is an important first step. Coupled with this result, the Government is already moving ahead with new structures and policies in relation to child welfare. We have for the first time a dedicated Minister for Children and the establishment of the new Family & Child Services Agency is most welcome. During the last budget, in very trying economic times, we allocated an additional €40 million to child welfare and this work will continue. I am also looking forward to Minister Alan Shatter’s review of the in-camera rule for certain family law cases – this is something many campaigners have been calling for and I think it merits further examination.
The wrongs of the past are no excuse not to change the way we as a State engage with some of our most vulnerable children. We could not simply ignore the 17 reports into child abuse and neglect in the last 20 years, which time and time again highlighted the fact that children were silent witnesses and victims within our legal system. I am proud that we as a Government have now ensured that children will be given a strengthened voice in our society, while at the same time protecting the fabric and uniqueness of the family unit.