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Andrew Madden: So only one-in-three could spare the time...

THANKFULLY, Ireland has voted Yes in the Children's Referendum. By Ireland, I mean, of course, those who bothered. The turnout was disappointing -- only one third of the electorate came out to vote. After all we have learned about our appalling failure to protect and listen to children for decades, nearly 70pc of people couldn't find the five minutes it would have taken to respond to the huge call from so many political parties, NGOs and individuals to give today's and tomorrow's children a voice in our Constitution.

With that level of apathy it's just as well that all children, particularly those most vulnerable and in need, now at least have the backing of those expressed constitutional rights, because it appears they don't have the backing of so many people in this country who are still all too happy to turn a blind eye when others are in difficulty or in need.

I voted Yes because I want to see children's rights set out in our Constitution. I want children to have the strength of those constitutional rights to enable them to have their voices heard and their best interests considered in decisions which affect them, particularly in the areas of child protection, care, adoption, guardianship, custody and access.

I want our child protection system to focus on a child's safety and welfare, not on anyone else's failures. I want those children in long-term foster care who cannot currently be adopted to have that right if it is in their best interests. And I want the Government to be obliged, under the new Article 42A, to legislate appropriately to protect and vindicate those rights.

Despite the shamefully low turnout, this referendum has marked another significant development in Ireland's changing attitude to children, and most of that change dates only as far back as the last election.

For about 15 years prior to that, the focus was on exposing the truth about the failure of the State and the churches, particularly the Catholic Church, to protect children from people known to be a danger to them.

That failure had continued for decades with the knowledge of far too many people in Irish society.

One of the reasons for that failure, I believe, was the inappropriate relationship between the State and the Catholic Church that led to an unquestioning deference to the church which facilitated much neglect and abuse of children.

Also, the State became so reliant on the Catholic Church to provide many services that it left itself unable, or unwilling, to respond appropriately to real expressions of concern that were made over the years, particularly in the context of industrial schools, as set out in the Ryan Report.

The failure to protect children can also be attributed to our attitude to poverty, to women, to sex and morality. And, of course, our attitude to children.

The turnout figures tell me that the attitude of many people in this country to children hasn't changed anything like as much as it needs to -- just enough on this occasion to get this referendum passed.

So what happens now?

Those who didn't vote, or who voted No because they wanted to give the Government a kicking, might give some thought to the term "children first".

Those of us with a genuine interest in advancing the safety, welfare, protection and rights of children will grab this result with both hands and work it in the best interests of children, like we do with everything else.

Andrew Madden is author of Altar Boy, A Story of Life After Abuse. Blog: andrewmmadden.blogspot.com Twitter: @andrewmmadden

Irish Independent