Passage of children’s referendum is a tribute to work of McGuinness

SOMETIMES, especially in the hurly burly of life, you forget what idealism looks like. And then you meet someone like Catherine McGuinness.

She has no right to be an idealist, and even less to be an activist. She was born, if Wikipedia is correct, in 1934. That makes her a good deal older than me, and I’m ancient! But she is anything but ancient. In fact she is an inspiration. She uses a walking stick to get about, but I have seldom met anyone with so clear a mind, so passionate a commitment, or so steadfast a set of principles and values. You’d follow her anywhere.

I’ve been following Catherine McGuinness since the referendum campaign on the rights of children began. In most of the ways that matter, she was the one who began it.

Catherine McGuinness is a retired member of the Supreme Court. Prior to that she was a distinguished lawyer, the first ever woman appointed to the Circuit Court, and a High Court judge. She was also an independent senator for a number of years, and after she retired from the bench she became chair of the Law Reform Commission.

She has put in a remarkable life’s work, and is still doing so. In the course of the campaign, she was missing for a couple of days, and when I asked was everything all right I was told she was fine. She’d had to fit in an OSCE mission to some far flung country in Asia as part of an investigation of their commitment to civil rights! But it was her own investigation into what became known as the Kilkenny Incest case that brought her to one inescapable conclusion — that a culture whereby the rights of children could be suppressed, and where everything else mattered more, was fundamentally wrong.

In March 1993 a Kilkenny man was jailed after he pleaded guilty to the rape, incest and assault of his daughter over a 15-year period. The scale of the his abuse of his daughter was profoundly shocking. But then it emerged that the girl had had extensive contact with doctors in her local hospital, and with a wide range of people in a position to react and protect her better.

All sorts of people know what was going on and what she was suffering. But somehow, the disparate bits and pieces of the system failed to put a picture together that enabled them to protect a girl who was suffering terribly. The then Minister for Health, Brendan Howlin, asked Catherine McGuinness to chair a group to investigate how it had happened.

That group made damning findings about structures, communications, record-keeping and how poor the necessary cooperation was between all the relevant agencies of the state. The report did lead to very significant changes in child care law, ultimately, although the issues of structure have taken years to get right (and they’re not there yet).

But it was two paragraphs of the report that in a way started the process that ended on Sunday, when the people decided to put children at the heart of the constitution.

“We feel that the very high emphasis on the rights of the family in the constitution may consciously or unconsciously be interpreted as giving a higher value to the rights of parents than to the rights of children,” it said.

“We believe the constitution should contain a specific and overt declaration of the rights of born children. We therefore recommend that consideration be given by the Government to the amendment of Articles 41 and 42 of the constitution so as to include a statement of the constitutional rights of children.”

Twenty years later the wheel has turned full circle. And Catherine McGuinness, as chair of Yes for Children, led the civic society campaign to secure the change she advocated all that time ago. That’s what I call putting advocacy into practice.

It wasn’t always easy. We always knew that fear would enter into the campaign, because it always does in an Irish referendum campaign. In fact, fear usually wins — though not on this occasion.

I confess that although I was prepared for a degree of scare-mongering, I was taken aback by some of the viciousness we encountered in this campaign. There was a lot of untruth, and a lot of messages designed only to frighten people. Some of it came from people who should know better, but who seem determined to go to any lengths to score whatever point they want to make.

There’s no doubt whatever in my mind that it was fear that drove up the no vote in the end, together with the confusion engendered by the last-minute Supreme Court ruling. Both also contributed to the decision by so many people to stay away from the polls.

Campaigns like this need leaders. We were lucky on the “non-political” side of the debate to have Catherine McGuinness as our leader, and we were lucky too to have Frances Fitzgerald as the political leader of the campaign. It was she who designed good words, and who ensured that there was a broad political consensus from the beginning (despite the usual opportunism at the tail end of the campaign).

As the campaign went on she put in sterling performances on radio and television, and held her nerve in the face of some considerable pressure. She deserves huge credit for making history.

I HOPE (and believe) she knows that people like Caoimhín O’Caolain and Robert Troy of Fianna Fáil set aside the usual oppositional instincts to play real leadership roles throughout. I met opposition politicians everywhere I went during this campaign — all supporting the amendment in an honest and constructive show of solidarity.

Between them all they have achieved no small thing. The amendment we have passed sends a powerful message to every law maker, every administrator, every service provider, and every judge that we want a different culture where children are concerned.

It does more than that. Those who (since it was passed) have described the amendment as aspirational ignore one fundamental fact — the use of the word “shall”. That word, which is used five times in the amendment, changes it from a set of values to which we aspire into a set of instructions that the State cannot choose to ignore.

There will be further legislation on adoption, on the best interests of children and on the voice of children, because there has to be. It is now a constitutional imperative that Ireland gets its child protection act together, and that means it’s critically important that we get the new Child and Family Support Agency off to a good start.

That’s why, in a sense, the work starts now. The decision we made at the weekend is a pivot around which further change will revolve. It will be change for the better. Of course we won’t get everything right, but we can be much more certain now that the future will be a far more accountable place.

There cannot be any going back to the days when a lonely, frightened, abused girl in Kilkenny found she had nowhere to turn. A great woman called Catherine McGuinness has seen to that.

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