Towards achieving the rights of the child in a real Republic

Giving the closing lecture of the Cummann Merriman School on Changing Irish Childhoods, presidential hopeful Michael D. Higgins said on Sunday (21 August) that achieving “a fulfilling Irish childhood will require more than legal and constitutional change, it will require a change of consciousness at every level.”

He said there was a need to have a “positive impact on the lives of the 1.1 million children and young people in Ireland who, today, rely on us – their adult fellow citizens – to provide the efficient and effective structures necessary to ensure their protection, participation and nurturing in the years ahead.”

In speaking of ‘the child as fellow citizen”, Mr. Higgins said “I use the expression fellow-citizens very deliberately in addressing this issue,” saying, “One of the four strands of my vision for the Presidency is Inclusive Citizenship.”

Mr. Higgins emphasised the need to replace “a period where people were too often defined by money and property” with “an alternative perspective – a society based on justice and the fundamental dignity, equality and participation of all citizens, including our children and young people… to give real meaning to that powerful phrase from the 1916 proclamation ‘to cherish all the children of the nation equally.’”

The edited text of Mr Higgins’s speech is below.



It is past time to give real meaning to that powerful phrase from the 1916 proclamation, a phrase which resonates for many Irish people, ‘to cherish all the children of the nation equally”.  There are many respects in which all that happened following the foundation of the State contradicted such an aim.


Children were not equal in terms of freedom from hunger, housing, health, access to education, or indeed in access to institutionalized culture.  The society that was inherited, and which was continued, was an unequal one.  Society is still deeply unequal today.  To make such a change, as would ‘cherish all of the children of the nation equally’, would require such a change in consciousness as would be deeply challenging to many of the assumptions which are central to Irish society.

Such a radical use of words is in danger of being reduced to the status of rhetorical gesture, if it is not followed by a commitment to change through reflection, changing consciousness and action.  Its realisation involves a commitment the public world and challenging thought that is the very antithesis of the corrosive cynicism which is far too pervasive and evades real engagement.

In seeking to advance in our present circumstances it is clear that to give rights to children will require Constitutional, legislative, and administrative change.  It is necessary to recognize that the legal protection of children falls short of recognizing the full rights of a child and their delivery.

The Government’s commitment to a dedicated referendum on children’s rights next year is a welcome development for those who believe that the experiences of the past make it clear that voluntary approaches are not a sufficient solution to the protection of our children. Maria Corbett, the Policy Director of the Children’s Rights Alliance, said here on Thursday that strengthening children’s rights by way of a Constitutional amendment will set down a marker, for once and for all, that every childhood counts, regardless of the intellectual or physical capacity of the child.  Such an amendment would certainly be a powerful legal statement on Ireland’s values as a society.

Moreover, there will be further opportunity to look at how our Constitution might be strengthened and enhanced as part of a Constitutional Convention, promised under the current Programme for Government, which promises a root and branch review of our Constitution. I will observe the deliberations and outcomes of this debate with great interest and it may indeed be fitting if next year, the 75th Anniversary of our Constitution provided an opportunity for thorough review of that document and reflection on how it might best serve us all in our shared future.  Indeed we may find ourselves with a quite different Constitution when we come to the 2016 commemoration of the centenary of the Proclamation of 1916.  It would be my great wish that at that centenary we may have moved closer to the goal of “cherishing all the children of the nation equally” as part of a real and inclusive Republic.

While deliberations at this year’s School have highlighted very many matters of continued concern to you all in the areas of children’s rights and child protection, one welcome development is the creation of a new post of Minister for Children and Youth Affairs - offering the prospect of real and sustained progress in this area. Other positive measures include plans to place the national code on dealing with child protection concerns, Children First, on a statutory footing, creating a legal duty for adults who work with children to report suspected cases of abuse and neglect, and the proposed establishment of a new Child and Family Support Agency. This agency will be tasked with achieving a new strategic focus, better management and an essential consistency of approach in child welfare and protection.

However, commitments to place previously-voluntary codes on a statutory footing, hold a referendum on children’s rights and consider outstanding issues in relation to the child as citizen as part of the review of the Constitution, while important, will not in themselves be sufficient to change the lives of children in Ireland.

They must also, for example, be underpinned by concrete legislation covering many aspects of children’s welfare. Such legislation must gain priority in the legislative drafting process and in the Government’s legislative programme.  There are only so many opportunities for legislation and reforming children’s legislation will no doubt have to fight for its place.  That is where the success or failure of advocacy will be shown.  Commitment to legislation is by no means the end of the road.  The truth is that the mechanisms of administrative implementation are also crucial and sadly there are examples of the legislative spirit being frustrated at this stage. All too often radical reforming proposals may not be opposed directly but rather allowed to wither on the vine.

The appointment of a full minister with responsibility for children and their welfare, to sit at Cabinet, can make a real difference, but the Minister has to be supported.  I was in that position in the Governments of 93 to 97.  What made the difference was that I had come to the Ministry with a clear vision of what I wished to achieve and the limited space in which to make it happen.  There was an advantage in being a political scientist and being able to anticipate potential obstacles of an administrative culture.

I wish the Minister for Children every success, but stress that she will have to be groundbreaking in her approach.  She will not be able to assume any automatic consensus for the radical establishment in a real sense of the rights of the child.  When these rights have been spoken of, I seem to me looking back, that they have often been made conditional.

One great source of conditional reserve, which I recall, as far as the rights of the child in Ireland were concerned, was the obsession with the protection of property.  A people with one of the richest spiritual inheritances in the world were remarkably materialist in its placing the rights of property in a place of privilege when the opportunity for independence came.

To give an example from my own earliest political experience; one of the very first bills which I co-sponsored in Seanad Eireann, with Senators Mary Robinson and John Horgan, was the ‘Illegitimate children (Maintenace and Succession) Bill, 1974’.   This bill, largely drafted by Senator Robinson, drew a debate which seemed to indicate that there was an anxiety on the need to legislate for the rights of all children.

The debate of course, revealed that great obsession of Irish society as far as conservative political opinion was concerned, the need to protect private property, even if the consequences of such meant lesser rights for children born out of wedlock.

One of the most brilliant exponents of political conservatism, Fine Gael’s Senator Alexis Fitzgerald stated:

“The sections of the bill which I wholly favour, are the sections with regard to improving the maintenance provisions, the provisions for apprenticeship fees, the provision for funeral expenses and so on.  We should seek to see that an illegitimate has all rights in what is held in common, that is so far as it is made common, by becoming part of the public purse.  In relation to private property, serious practical difficulties will have to be faced, before we can proceed.“

Senator Fitzgerald went on to present a vigorous critique to Senator Robinson’s project of driving the word illegitimacy from legal usage.

Through the 1970s, 80s, and even 90s, we were to see this invocation of the prior and superior rights of property being used in constitutional referendums, such as for example, the first proposed amendment to the constitution, which would have allowed civil divorce.  There were then and perhaps still are, those who are happy to see children as instruments for the inheritance and transfer of property, for the passing on of ownership, for the construction of what might be called an ‘amoral familism’ as opposed to family, community and citizenship in their most positive sense.

Public attitudes do matter and the public consciousness that stands behind such attitudes is of immense importance.  Is there a public consciousness now, almost 40 years after this debate on illegitimacy, which would suggest that all children are regarded as equal, entitled to equal protection, provision, and above all else, freedom to enjoy what is regarded in the western world as ‘childhood’?

Certainly in the intervening period, the debate on citizenship in 2004 seemed to suggest that not all children were to be regarded as equal.  I was a participant in that debate and, following a campaign in which I found myself to be in a small minority, the suggestion that children, born here, but whose parents were not Irish citizens, should be regarded as equal citizens with all other children was comprehensively defeated.  I of course accept the judgement of the Irish people on this matter, but I think it does illustrate the selective interpretation which can be given to ‘cherishing all of the nation’s children equally’.

Such a phrase at any event has been contested almost from the beginning.  The reference to such rights of children in the Democratic Programme of the first Dail, was contested.  All of the early legislation of my own party, The Labour Party, in relation to provisions that would have ensured that no child went to school hungry was opposed.  We were to witness the consequences of a hostility towards the State that would leave children in institutions without protection and children in dysfunctional families or circumstances with no refuge.

The writer John McGahern has written sensitively about the Irish people being made to choose between the family and the state, when in fact, they needed both, and certainly not these two institutions to be set in violent tension with each other.

In the circumstances where we currently find ourselves, with a loss of trust in institutions, with different assumptions, and different claims to authority, it is important that we revisit this issue of the role of the State and the balance of the private and public world.

We are not alone in our difficulties here.  In being tested on what it means to be a citizen in a Republic and what we mean by the rights of the child we are in a similar position to many others in Europe and worldwide.  Different countries have struggled to deliver the rights of the child in the fullest sense.  Perhaps one of the finest documents was that chapter in the Constitution of post-dictatorship Nicaragua entitled ‘Para los Ninos’ written by the Cardenal brothers, Ernesto and Fernando.  A document accompanied by great achievement in the area of literacy.  These efforts were recognized with a UNESCO award, but of course with the sweeping away of that Sandanista experience, their model for the children of Nicaragua perished.

The Irish social sciences are no different to the social sciences in general in their failure to construct adequate sociological theory that will incorporate the experience of the child, the challenge of language, relationships, feeling and self-development.  Most approaches have been functional in character, concentrating on the preparation of children for a useful adulthood and a conflict-free existence.  There have been exceptions of course, such as the classic literature from Marx’s discussion of Homo Ludens, to David Matza’s exceptional work on the establishment of deviant identity.  However, there is not enough evidence of such theory transforming social policy.

When one considers the number of children with mental health difficulties who are to be found in adult institutions, the regular progression of children from detention to prison, the number of children who are leaving school early, almost 9000 every year, the number of unaccompanied minors ‘lost’ from HSE accommodation – over 500, and the more than 2000 children in Traveller families who are deprived of basic facilities, one can see how easy it would be to conclude that the cherishing of all the children equally is not being realised.

If we now are to move forward and build children’s rights into a version of a real republic, we must realize that there is need for change, not only in the Constitution, not only in the legislation, not only in administration, but also in public consciousness in our priorities.

I have stated that my own presidential campaign is built around the principle of a radical inclusive citizenship in a creative society as part of the building of a real republic – one that make us proud to be Irish at home and abroad.

Protecting children must obviously now be a guarantee.  However, the rights of the child must be defined as the rights to develop creativity not only within oneself but in interaction with others.  In a recent book, Alfred Kazin’s Journals, Kazin describes walking in London after the war: “Society, a mass, acting in concert with you, expressing the deepest part of you, in fact just the opposite of being submerged in the crowd.  This is the positive sacramental side of society as an institution: working for you, with the energy and unconscious but positive wisdom that you do not immediately find in yourself”.

Many thinkers have seen society as something which exists in context with the deeper self - the need is to return to a social vision which sees it as liberating the deepest self.  McGahern expressed a related idea in his stories - that too often in Ireland the family was set up not as the basis of society but as an alternative to the social itself.

We need to achieve a Republic by showing the link between community vision and the wellsprings of the self.  Religion once claimed to do that and did for many people, but too often it declined into a controlling moralism - which sought to regulate not our relationship with destiny or the spirit but simply with one another rather than express and explore the relationship between self, society and the infinite. In the process power replaced authority.

Being positive, we can envisage what an achievement it would be if every child’s nutritional needs were met; if all children were assured of a good meal before they were asked to learn; if all children were enabled to achieve a level of literacy and numeracy;  if all children had opportunities to enjoy their physicality through recreational opportunities such as the ability to swim; if all children had access to a musical instrument. Why should such outcomes be beyond the ambition of a republic in 2011?

As Minister for Arts & Culture I championed a radical and exciting vision of the role of culture in Irish society and also offered practical supports such as the setting up of TG4 and the establishment of a network of arts venues across the country to give more families and citizens opportunities for cultural engagement.

I saw the potential within the creative society then and see it still to this day.

This creative potential is not just in our artists, but in our craft design and technology; in the blending of tradition and innovation; in a respectful and imaginative relationship with the environment and with each other.

If elected as President, I will invite every citizen to become part of a truly creative and inclusive society –which not only contributes to our economic and cultural development, but also provides a necessary foundation for the reimagining of a real and more equal Republic. A Republic based on the dignity, respect, participation and imagination of all citizens of all ages.

Childhood is in sometimes seen as a Western creation or an anticipation of an adulthood of utility, and not necessarily expanded imagination or experience.

That is why the battle for the curriculum is one of the most important, if neglected aspect of the debate in education.  As part of John Quinn’s open mind lectures on RTÉ I spoke on the pedagogy of love that might replace the pedagogy of fear.  Mike Cooley was prophetic in his handling of the nature of discovery and the importance of combining manual and mental education.

The fact is that a strictly functional reading of childhood as a preparation for a world that is defined by property and the market economy would be an incredible limitation of the possibilities that should exist in the mind of the child, and those in whose care the child is.

The role of the State should be one of ensuring all possibilities are opened up, rather than serving as the instrumental tool of a single version of society, a version that may be not only fragile, but narrow.  Democracy demands that all of our children be allowed the freedom to remember our shared past, including its undemocratic moments, but even more importantly to be free to envisage the world that is waiting to be born.  I wish the new Minister and the Ministry every success; above all, I wish all of the present children, and those children who will come after them, the joy and the promise of playing their part in a real republic. 

Image top: The Labour Party.