Sunday 22 September 2019

Judge Catherine McGuinness warns over delays on children’s referendum

Retired Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness. Photo: Tom Burke
Retired Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness. Photo: Tom Burke

Lyndsey Telford

A judge who was among the first to call for children's rights to be enshrined in the Constitution has warned about a long and irrelevant debate on the issue.

Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness urged the Government not to allow undue delay ahead of the autumn referendum as the Cabinet met in Dublin to finalise wording and outline of the long-awaited reform.

And Barnardos chief Fergus Finlay said he believes the vote will happen two months after the official wording of the constitutional amendments are published.

"I imagine we'll have a roughly two-month timescale," he said.

"If it's tighter than that then maybe people will have a right to be concerned, but I think a month in the Oireachtas and a month out being debated by the people is more than enough time."

Mrs McGuinness, retired Supreme Court judge, first called for constitutional change to children's rights in 1993 during the Kilkenny incest inquiry.

She said it had been a long road to the referendum but warned that continued lengthy debate could be counter-productive.

"I don't think it's a good idea to have a hugely long time for debate because that just leaves a huge space for a lot of completely irrelevant issues to be brought up and fought over," said Mrs McGuinness.

She said the Lisbon, Nice and fiscal treaty referendums were opened up to too much irrelevant debate.

The children's rights activists also urged Government to ensure that wording of the referendum is as simple as possible to avoid similar confusion that surrounded the complex proposed reforms to Oireachtas inquiries last year, which the public refused to pass.

The principals of the proposed constitutional changes include a general recognition of the rights of children.

They also call for the State's intervention in cases where parents fail in their responsibilities to a child.

Changes to adoption laws would also see children eligible for adoption whether they have parents or not and regardless of their marital status.

The views of the child would be taken into account during proceedings and their best interests would be regarded as the paramount consideration.

Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald was expected to finalise the wording with Cabinet today. Once agreed upon, it would then be discussed with the Opposition before being published.

It is understood the exact wording of the proposed amendments will not be published today.

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