I am appreciative of the sharing of time by my colleague, Deputy McConalogue, and acknowledge the work he did when he was our party spokesperson on children affairs.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, is entitled to considerable credit for the valuable work she and her departmental officials have done since taking office. She has hastened slowly on this particular matter because it did require very careful deliberation. This is borne out by the extensive time given both by the committee chaired by former Deputy Peter Power, and subsequently that chaired by former Deputy Mary O'Rourke on which I was privileged to serve, where all the matters pertaining to the rights and the welfare of the child were carefully and tortuously teased out to get them right. I believe this Bill will be passed today and the people will pass the referendum in due course. The Minister is in the fortunate position of having an important political legacy to point to at an early stage in her ministerial career. Perhaps there are colleagues of hers in government who will not be so fortunate or have not been to date.
Like Deputy McConalogue, I commend the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on the manner in which she has engaged with NGOs and with political individuals involved in this process throughout the years. I would expect nothing better from another Kildare person. It is important for those of us on this side of the House to recognise that all political parties have been actively engaged in the area of children's welfare and rights for several years. A cross-party consensus has been achieved, brought about by careful and assiduous work. I pay tribute to my colleague Mary O'Rourke, who chaired a committee which worked diligently on this issue. There were at least 60 meetings of that committee. It teased out the issue of the referendum, the important issue of strict and absolute liability and the area of soft information. I acknowledge the work done in the past by Ministers of State with responsibility for children, the current Minister's predecessors, Mary Hanafin, Barry Andrews, Brendan Smith and the late Brian Lenihan. All of them contributed to the work that has brought us to this point.
Given everything that has come to light in recent years about the experience and welfare of children, it behoves all of us to keep children's rights and welfare at the centre of the political and public agenda not only for the course of this referendum but in future. With this in mind I welcome the political support for the referendum from all sides of the House. My only fear is of a passive and perhaps naive assumption or belief that the public will support this vital amendment simply because we in the House and in the political system are doing so. There is an onus on all sides of the House to engage actively with the electorate in the coming weeks to highlight children's welfare, the myriad issues affecting their daily lives and the progression to responsible adulthood, as well as the important passage of this referendum.
I recall my late grandfather saying to me many times that children should be seen and not heard. Given that Bunreacht na hÉireann was written in his era, it is not surprising that there are few mentions of children in the document. Long before the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in November 1989, enlightened legislators had come to realise that the rights and welfare of children were central to the well-being of society and had begun to legislate accordingly. Ireland signed the convention in 1990 and it could be argued, understandably, that the State has been tardy in making the necessary constitutional changes to expand on the general provisions contained in Article 40. While this may be true, the same cannot be said for the advancement of the welfare of children through legislative means and other initiatives. The establishment of the Ombudsman for Children and the additional policy framework introduced through the passage of major legislation such as the Children Act 2001 and the Adoption Act 2010 has strengthened the rights and improved the welfare of children. The establishment of the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs as a super-junior ministry some years ago is also to be commended, and I commend the Taoiseach on his elevation of the role to full Cabinet status.
We should not lose sight of why this referendum is needed. We must ensure that children's voices are heard and we must create a culture that puts children and their interests and rights at the centre of decisions taken in all areas of society, including the Government, State agencies and the courts. We must ensure the State takes responsibility and responds quickly to protect children in situations in which they are being abused or neglected. This can only be achieved if our good intentions and honourable approach are supported by practical provisions. Effective intervention can be accomplished only when adequate resources are in place. While everyone involved in this process to date is motivated by nothing other than what is best for children, it is inevitable that there will be some among the public who will not agree with the detail and the nature of what is proposed. It is of the utmost importance that there should be respectful, open and detailed debate in the public arena in the hope that people will be won over and convinced by the real and pertinent arguments made in support of the legislation.
There is nothing in this referendum that will have a negative impact on the status of the family. I believe these proposals have the balance right between what some perceive to be the competing interests of the integrity of the family and the rights and welfare of the child. Sadly, everyone in the House is familiar, from what we see in our constituencies, with the countless situations in which children are trapped in chaotic families that are seriously damaged and suffering from abuse of alcohol and drugs. Resources must be deployed to support children in such situations and whatever can be done must be done to rehabilitate such family units. However, there is a need to identify instances in which supports are not working and other interventions must be taken. In these exceptional cases the caring agencies of the State must have the judgment and courage to act in the best interests of the child and instigate removal of the child from the family environment for either the short or the longer term.
The last time I spoke in the House about children's welfare I raised an important point which I believe to be worthy of mention again. There are many factors at play in the lives of young Irish people other than the constitutional provision or any legislative initiative that we advocate or enact. We cannot fail to notice the impact that a rapidly changing society is having on them. I am referring among other things to the sexualisation of children by elements within the music and entertainment industries and the type of rampant commercialism that targets marketing campaigns at children. Young children are increasingly exposed to this sexualisation and many young people are subject to the pressure of fulfilling society's perceived images of what they should or should not be, or how they should or should not act. This pressure, often based more on perception than reality, adversely affects their mental health and sense of self-worth.
The reality of paedophilia has haunted the land. Despite all the revelations and recommendations, the evil that is paedophilia has not ceased and will not cease to exist. Therefore, we can only guarantee the welfare of our children by ensuring, individually and collectively, that we are constantly vigilant and attentive to their genuine needs.
In essence, this constitutional amendment provides the nation with a chance to make children visible constitutionally, to make decisions in their best interests, to support families, to protect children, to reform our adoption laws and to foster a new culture for children in our society. The Constitution is the fundamental law of the State and guarantees a range of personal rights. It is a proclamation of our values as a society and it underpins interaction between the State and its citizens. If we truly believe that our nation's children should be at the heart of this document, this is our chance to prove it, and this referendum affords us the opportunity to do that. For the sake of Ireland's future generations we must vote "Yes", and I look forward to the privilege of doing so on 10 November. I encourage Members not only to verbally support the referendum here and in the media but to actively support it on the ground. If we are going to achieve our objectives then there must be a real and meaningful nationwide debate on the role of children in Irish society, when there is a need to intervene on their behalf, and the need to ensure that they can look to a positive future as responsible adults and members of Irish society. I commend the legislation to the House and I look forward to voting in the referendum in due course.