In 2012, we held a Children’s Referendum and voted to enshrine children’s rights in our Constitution. It should have heralded in a new age of protecting children from inequality and inequity. Some things have improved. Last year, the Children and Family Relationships Act made huge changes to family law in Ireland; in December, smacking was effectively banned; and soon, children in Direct Provision will be able to take complaints about their detention to the Ombudsman.
This is the light in which the UN released a report last week analysing Ireland’s commitment to children’s rights. In their analysis, which takes place every 10 years, they were scathing. They were concerned about religious discrimination in our school system, which, they said, should be addressed “expeditiously”. They were concerned about the treatment of deaf children and children with disabilities. They were concerned about children in the Direct Provision system. They were concerned about children in court proceedings. They were concerned about the opportunities for Traveller and Roma children. They were concerned about our children’s sexual health education. At every turn they showed concern. None of this should surprise us. Across the country, 6,000 children are waiting for a social worker, 1,700 children are in the Direct Provision system, 1,000 children are homeless, 18 per cent of children are at risk of poverty, 11 per cent live in consistent poverty, and 63 per cent of lone parent households experience deprivation.
These statistics and the UN report paint a clear picture: there are two Irelands for our children. There is the Ireland for the children of working parents. And there is the Ireland for children from minority backgrounds, for children who aren’t catholic, for children with mental health problems, for children with physical disabilities, for asylum seeking children, for children being brought up by a lone parent, and for children growing up in a low-income home.
This election gives us the opportunity to try to solve these inequalities. As the Head of the Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission Emily Logan said, “it requires a demand from the public of our politicians to ensure that they place human rights and child protection at the heart of the progress that is being discussed today." What is needed is effort and a shift in mind-set among our politicians.
That shift has to be to rights-centred policy debate. It is what we need to ask candidates during this election to embrace. We need to ask them what they will do about children’s rights, and how they will fund it. We can, as the Children’s Rights Alliance proposes, demand that the next government shows how it is committing to the UN recommendations. We can also demand an immediate review of the suitability of emergency accommodation. We can also demand that the annual budget is equality proofed, so that we can see how it affects children.
We cannot allow that a child dies homeless or hungry before we act. The UN has shown us that we are not acting and that this needs to change. These are our children. This is our election. Make them matter.