| 11.4°C Dublin

Neither-seen-nor-heard campaign is not giving up

No vote advocates argue the proposed changes are flawed and will make an incompetent system more powerful, writes Jerome Reilly

The Government has spent some €1.1m on the information campaign for the Children's Referendum ahead of voting next Saturday. Opponents have claimed that the taxpayer-funded campaign is one-sided, but a legal challenge by engineer Mark McCrystal -- that the State's information booklet, website and advertising campaign are designed, intended and likely to promote a particular outcome -- failed to convince the President of the High Court.

The Court last week rejected the McCrystal challenge and also awarded the State its costs, ruling that the issues raised were not of exceptional public importance. Mr McCrystal's legal team have indicated they will appeal to the Supreme Court.

It was another blow to the disparate band of unfunded but committed No campaigners who have found it difficult to get their voice heard in a referendum campaign that generally failed to ignite serious debate about the issues raised by the proposed constitutional changes.

But who are the No campaigners? Apart from a small number of media commentators against a Yes vote, including John Waters in the Irish Times, who has argued cogently that the constitutional change could potentially be destructive of the family's cohesion and also endanger the child's true interests, the No voters have found it difficult to gain any real profile, with none of the mainstream political parties campaigning against the referendum.

The Alliance of Parents Against the State (APS), an organisation fronted by former MEP Kathy Sinnott, who says she is a volunteer adviser to the group, has garnered some airtime. They described themselves as "an alliance of parents and concerned citizens who do not want the State to take over control of our children".

Their essential argument is that the proposed changes to remove parental rights will only make an incompetent system even more powerful and less accountable and their campaign is based on 10 "reasons" why the referendum is fatally flawed, including their view that parents' "legal right under Article 42.5 of the Irish Constitution to decide 'best interests' for their own child will be handed over to the State.

"Your child can be placed for adoption against your will. You will not need to be accused or convicted of any crime and the arbitrary decision can be made by one person. The entire process will take place in secret family courts and you will be gagged and prevented from speaking out," the APS claims in its mission statement.

"The State can decide for example to vaccinate every child in Ireland and the parent, and even the child, have no say in the matter. You do not need to be consulted or give permission.

"Joan Burton has already hinted that child benefit will be tied into vaccination records; this could be extended to school admission."

They also claim that that a Yes vote will mean that the State can decide to give give birth control to children of any age, even if they are below the age of consent, and the State will be able to bring children to other countries for abortions without parental consent and even if the child disagrees.

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has rejected these claims saying that "inaccurate" information is being peddled about the children's rights referendum and has called for a "high-quality, informed debate".

The APS has a number of high-profile supporters and advocates, including the respected UK lawyer Ian Josephs, who has advised thousands of parents and children via his Forced Adoption website, as well as the British Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, who is backing the No side because he opposes what he describes as "wrongful adoptions" in Britain.

Maria Mhic Mheanmain of Parents for Children, as well as long-time campaigners, Dublin retiree Joe Burns and Athlone-based fathers' rights campaigner Joseph Egan, are also linked to APS. Another grouping against the referendum is Mothers Alliance Ireland, headed up by the committed anti-abortion campaigner Nora Bennis of Limerick. She told the Sunday Independent that with no funding they have found it difficult to get their voices heard.

"What we have been doing around the country is attending public gatherings of all sorts and trying to raise the issues we think arise in the referendum from the floor at those meetings.

"We have not managed to get our views across in the national broadcast media," she said.

Mothers Alliance Ireland says that since the referendum was announced, the Yes side -- including Olivia O'Leary, who is heading up the Yes campaign for the Children's Rights Alliance, and other pro groupings Barnardos and ISPCC -- have repeatedly claimed the referendum has nothing to do with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"This UN treaty is the elephant in the room in this referendum, and the lie is finally nailed by none other than Minister Frances Fitzgerald's own department. In a booklet on the referendum to be distributed to every household by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the cat has finally been let out of the bag.

"On page three of that booklet it clearly states that the referendum 'was recommended by the Constitutional Review Group which proposed a change to reflect the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Ireland in 1992'.

"The question that every Irish person going to the polls on November 10 should ask is: 'Why has this truth been kept from the Irish people for so long? What is there to hide?'"

Fr Brian McKevitt, editor of the Catholic monthly newspaper Alive!, has described the referendum as a "massive confidence trick" on children and parents.

Proof of the disparate nature of the No groupings is that while Fr McKevitt is fundamentally opposed to a Yes vote, so too are three veteran campaigners and founders of the Campaign to Separate Church & State (CSCS) in 1987.

John Colgan, Dick Spicer and Dr Michael McKillen have formed a group called Two Rights Now.

They described themselves as "three retired grandfathers" who argue that the people can't trust the State and its agents to do the right thing with extended powers.

"We need to be wary of proposals prepared by our TDs and senators meeting in private and without any openness. Some of what's proposed is superfluous and should be kept out of the Constitution," they say.

They also suggest that much of what is proposed is better done under ordinary law and that the Government and its predecessors have failed to give effect to the existing children's rights in the Constitution.

Sunday Independent