The Government is determined to get legislation for its proposed referendum on children's rights passed before the Oireachtas is dissolved, despite major concerns among Fine Gael, Labour and the Greens.
Announcing the wording for the 28th Amendment to the Constitution Bill yesterday, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said he was committed to putting the referendum to the people "whether before the general election, or in the autumn".
Regardless of whether the referendum is held before the Dáil is dissolved, the Government is determined that the Dáil and Seanad will pass the legislation necessary to order a referendum to be held within 90 days.
"I will be looking for Dáil time. I don't have the appetite for further interminable debate. We need to progress this," Minister of State for Children Brian Lenihan told The Irish Times last night.
If passed, the referendum would improve the rights of children under the Constitution, but it would not undermine the traditional protections enjoyed by the family, the Government insists.
The wording was greeted cautiously, but positively last night by children's rights organisations, such as Barnardos, the Children's Rights Alliance and the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
The State would be given the right to deal with cases of neglect or abuse of children of a married couple, just as it can intervene currently in non-marital families.
However, the grounds justifying intervention will not change, Mr Lenihan said. "It will be neither easier nor more difficult for a child to be taken into care," he said.
Children in long-term care will be eligible for adoption under legislation that will be introduced within 18 months, if the voters accept the referendum.
The amendment would also ease restrictions on the circumstances in which children can be adopted. For example, it will allow for children of married couples to be adopted, which is not the case at present.
The referendum, first promised last November by the Taoiseach, also provides for the courts to "endeavour to secure the best interests of the child" in adoption, guardianship, custody, or access cases.
In another change, State agencies would be able to share so-called "soft" information about suspected paedophiles, which they cannot do now because it interferes with a person's constitutional rights.
This would allow for information on suspected paedophiles to be shared among relevant bodies even in cases where a conviction has not been secured.
The Ferns inquiry report and last year's Oireachtas Committee on Child Protection have both insisted that such information must be gathered and shared.
The referendum would also provide for the introduction of a strict liability offence for adults who have sex with children. This would remove the defence of "honest mistake" available to adults and introduce a zone of absolute protection, below which it would be automatically criminal to have sex with a child. The age at which this zone of protection comes into force will be left for the Oireachtas to decide.
"As a community, we need to send out a strong message to would-be sexual predators that there can be no defence for their actions," said Mr Lenihan.
Demanding time to study the wording, Fine Gael said the legislation had to be "closely examined, particularly in terms of their effects, both intended and unforeseen". The Government, said Fine Gael TD Jim O'Keeffe, could have concentrated on strengthening powers to act against sexual predators where there was already all-party agreement.
Labour Senator Derek McDowell said he did not see how "a debate on all the issues raised can be held and concluded" before the Dáil ends and "there is no reason why it should be".
The Government, he said, had failed to set out "in explicit form" the rights of the child in our Constitution, rather than simply restating that they possess "natural and imprescriptible rights".
The Taoiseach said the Government had opted for "global protection that will be expounded on, and developed by, the Oireachtas over time".
By Mark Hennessy
Source: The Irish Times