Addressing a conference organised by Barnardos, the children’s charity of which the former Galway TD is a patron, President Higgins said the history of the State had showed that a focus on property had always overtaken the guarantee of children’s basic rights.
His comments at the conference on the future for child welfare in Ireland came as Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay said there was now a “once in a lifetime opportunity’” to overhaul child protection services based around a community hubs model.
President Higgins told the conference in Croke Park: “We have failed to protect children.
“Protecting children must be the first and most important priority for society.”
He said that while there had been progress, there were “places where the light has yet to shine”.
Referring to efforts in the 1920s to ensure that every child going to school had access to a meal, clothing, and shelter, he said the proposals had been “dropped and opposed” as it was felt a new property-owning society could not afford it.
“On every occasion. the property consciousness won,” he said. “As a society, I think we must think about this.”
On the referendum scheduled for this year, the President said the strengthening of children’s rights was important and that it was “setting down a marker once and for all”.
Gordon Jeyes, the national director for children and family services within the HSE, said the new agency he is to lead from next year would need the support of communities.
“There is a need for collective action,” he said, adding that there was a need for “less consumerism and more community”.
He said the new agency would need to be assertive, especially when intervening in families.
“How often could a report have been called ‘Somebody somewhere knew’,” he said.
Mr Jeyes also stressed that resources must be distributed according to need.
“If you look at the way resources are distributed across Ireland... they are distributed in an extremely ad hoc way — it is not based on need.”
He added that frontline staff were achieving good results but there had been a lack of “an appropriate management structure”, which needed to change.