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Children's group given €1.5m for referendum campaign

CARL O'BRIEN, Chief Reporter

Fri, Feb 17, 2012

TWO PHILANTHROPIC groups have provided €1.5 million to an organisation that is likely to play a major role in campaigning for a Yes vote in the forthcoming children’s referendum.

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald yesterday pledged that a stand-alone referendum would be held later this year with a wording that seeks to strengthen children’s rights.

The Campaign for Children describes itself as a “public information campaign” and is funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, founded by US billionaire Chuck Feeney, and the One Foundation, co-founded by Ryanair heir Declan Ryan and Deirdre Mortell.

It is understood the organisation is preparing to mount a major campaign in favour of changing the Constitution if the wording of the forthcoming referendum is approved by its board.

In political terms, the money invested in the group is significant. Libertas, for example, spent a similar sum during the first Lisbon referendum while Fine Gael is estimated to have spent €1.5 million during the last general election.

Campaigners say the absence of an explicit reference to children’s rights in the Constitution is having a negative effect on the welfare of vulnerable young people.

However, there is likely to be opposition on grounds that it may dilute the rights of parents and lower the threshold for the intervention of social workers in families.

The Campaign for Children executive director Bart Storan declined to say how much money exactly had been raised but said campaigning for a referendum would take place only after approval by its board.

He said some of its funds were also being used in areas such as advocacy work in adoption and family support.

The organisation is chaired by former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness. Board members include Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay, ISPCC chief executive Ashley Balbirnie, Fleishman-Hillard PR director Mark Mortell and Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance.

Ms Fitzgerald, meanwhile, said a wording was being finalised on a referendum that would be stronger than a version produced by the previous government.

She said she hoped to secure cross-party support for the proposed amendment, and to ensure there was sufficient lead-in time to allow people to understand and debate the issues fully.

“It’s important to give these issues the respect they deserve which is why the Taoiseach and I intend to hold a stand-alone referendum,” Ms Fitzgerald told The Irish Times. 

Legislation to accompany aspects of the referendum relating to adoption will be published in advance of the referendum.

Ms Fitzgerald said the Attorney General and senior officials were working on a wording that would stay as close as possible to the principles of a wording produced by the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution in 2010. This group endorsed a wording that sought to:

- Ensure the best interests of the child applies in legal cases affecting them.

- Allow for the adoption of children – as many as 2,000 – originally from marital families who are in long-term foster care.

- Allow the State to intervene in a “proportionate” manner where parents have failed in their responsibilities.

Ms Fitzgerald said concerns had been expressed by the current and former Attorneys General over the consequences of previous versions of the wording, and these issues were being addressed.

The Minister’s commitment to hold a stand-alone referendum received a warm response yesterday from groups such as the Children’s Rights Alliance. “We are of the firm opinion that this is our one and only opportunity to make legal history for children in Ireland,” said alliance chief executive, Tanya Ward.

Government TDs also welcomed the commitment that the referendum would not be held in tandem with a planned vote on Seanad reform. Chair of the Oireachtas committee on Children, Fine Gael TD Jerry Buttimer, said the issues were complex and needed to be fully debated. The committee vice-chair, Labour TD Ciara Conway, said a dedicated referendum meant voters could focus on well-informed and meaningful debate. A referendum on these issues was first pledged more than five years ago by then taoiseach Bertie Ahern and at least two draft wordings have since been produced.

2012 The Irish Times

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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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