Thursday 14 November 2019

Little Keith's childhood dream doesn't need a referendum

Willie Kealy

A lot of very good people have devoted considerable time and energy over the last few months worrying about "the children of the nation" and the need to treat them all equally. Whatever side they were on in the Referendum, and however well meaning, I'm sure none of these "concerned citizens" were thinking about young Keith.

Keith is a little chap who has been shunted around from one unsuitable accommodation to another with his mother and his sister. He turned up last week in a report by the office of the Ombudsman for Children prepared for the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child which is about to have a close look at how we uphold the rights of children. The report gave little Keith a chance to tell us, in his own words, of his fears and his dreams.

"It's freezing. That's why I have this furry blanket. I share it with my mam and sister. I don't like when people bully me. We have no upstairs. I've no space to play except in my room and that's full of clothes. I'm sad cos I can't have a dog here. When I think of the house I'd like . . . OK in the sitting room there's a doggie drinking water. The telly's on. Upstairs there's a black and white stripey rug in my room. I've two beds so my friend can sleep over. I've pictures on the wall. I can't have any in this house. In the garden there's a flower pot there and a flower pot there. We've two guard dogs, a trampoline and a bouncy castle. If we had that house we wouldn't have to move all the time. Mammy's cried over that."

The Ombudsman's report estimates that since 2008, the proportion of children living in consistent poverty has risen from 6.8pc to 11.7pc. That's 138,000 little Irish children going through the same ordeal that young Keith and his sister endure every day. The Government has a plan to reduce this number by 70,000 before 2020. If it works, and that's a big if, that leaves a further 37,000 for whom there is no official plan to do anything.

The Dublin inner city Independent politician Maureen O'Sullivan knows a bit about the reality of what these figures mean. In the Dublin region there has been a 62pc increase in the number of children in homeless services since last June. She reckons decades from now there will be tribunals of inquiry into all this. And they'll probably conclude that in the year 2015 the people really weren't aware of what an awful situation was allowed to obtain in their name - you know, like how the people of the early part of the 20th Century didn't understand the problem of the Magdalene laundries.

"There are issues around safety, living in confined spaces, given the fact that the children are reliant on fast food with high fat content levels," according to Ms O'Sullivan. She says the situation gets worse in the summer when hotel and B&B beds are needed for tourists. "One can imagine a child entering a new school, being asked where he or she lives, replying that it is in a bed and breakfast or hotel down the road. There is a stigma."

What are we storing up for ourselves with the propagation of this now almost permanent underclass?

"Severe psychological, emotional and personal developmental difficulties are being stored up for the children involved," according to Ms O'Sullivan. Or, in less correct language, a cadre of future criminals, losers, alcoholics, drug-abusers, outsiders and general misfits whose main accommodation as adults will probably be prison or the streets. Of course it doesn't have to be like this. It's not like we're trying to find a cure for cancer. It's just a matter of spending a bit of money.

We can't say we haven't been warned. Young Keith has sent us a powerful message in his modest little ambition to have something approaching a normal childhood for himself and his sister.

The people who can make this happen are powerful, caring, articulate. Many of them have spent the last few months staring at the bigger picture, some worried about matters they felt would consign our society to hell in a handcart.

If they could now take the time to lower their gaze to the particular, they might realise that too many of our little citizens, are already well down that dangerous path. And it doesn't require a referendum to put this right.

Sunday Independent

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