The recent decision on the application of section 252 of the Children Act 2001 has been causing a lot of heartbreak for the families of children who were murdered. At the end of October, in the Court of Appeal, Mr. Justice Birmingham held that reporting restrictions relating to offences against children would also apply even if a child had turned 18 years or was deceased. He also found that the identity of the person responsible for the death of the child could also not be disclosed if said disclosure could lead to the identification of the child, whether directly or indirectly. Section 252 applies once a person has been charged with an offence. This means that we have instances where a crime is committed and a child is murdered and media outlets can report the matter widely. They can name the child and include photos of him or her and quotes from his or her family. However, once someone is charged or a court case starts, the reporting changes to being about a person charged with the killing of the child on the relevant date. This is really absurd.
I welcome that the Government has moved quickly to try to remedy this issue. I cannot imagine the hurt of families and loved ones who feel that their children have been erased in all of this. So much for our victim-centred approach to criminal justice. Mr. Justice Birmingham's ruling has meant that even adult survivors of child abuse cannot be named if their cases went before the courts. Last December, a survivor was on the "Today with Claire Byrne" radio show to bravely tell her story but she could not be referred to by her own name. Talk about taking away someone's agency. This is what we are remedying today, which is good.
I note that the Bill before us was tabled by the Opposition in the Seanad. It was introduced at the beginning of November last year. In the Government briefing note on the Bill, we are told that the Minister met Senator McDowell and Deputy O'Callaghan and decided to accept the Bill and make the required amendments to it. The briefing states the Minister took the view that the most expeditious approach was to proceed with the Seanad Private Members' Bill and make the necessary amendments on Committee Stage rather than putting forward a Government Bill. I just wanted to read those words into the Dáil record. How many times have we heard or experienced this? How many times have we asked for Opposition Bills to be accepted and amended on Committee Stage? We are all legislators. I welcome that we now have evidence that the Government can work with us when it decides to do so. The key point is its deciding to do so. It is not that Opposition Bills cannot be put forward, it is just that Opposition Bills that the Government does not want cannot be put forward.
This is a tragic topic to discuss. In preparing for today, I wondered how often these tragic crimes might occur. I also thought about other circumstances that might highlight the vital need to protect vulnerable children, and highlight the times over our history, and still today, when we have failed. The atrocities committed at so-called homes throughout the country are never far from my mind, the institutions where mothers and babies were kept, maltreated and worse. The recent final report of the now-dissolved Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters found that between 1922 and 1998, 9,000 children died in Ireland's mother and baby homes. This shocking and heartbreaking figure relates only to the 12 or 14 homes that were investigated by the commission. There were hundreds such institutions and others around the country. What would the body count be if we included them? It is shameful.
On Wednesday, 24 February, during my contribution on statements on the New Decade, New Approach agreement, I raised the tragic case of Noah Donohoe. I have been liaising closely with Noah's tenacious mother and aunt in recent months to highlight this important case south of the Border. A week ago, on Wednesday, 24 March, Senator Eileen Flynn and I hosted a very well-attended online briefing with Noah's mother and aunt and representatives from the Dáil and Seanad. As most Deputies already know, last June, Noah, a young 14-year-old boy, went missing in Belfast. Six days later, his body was found in a storm drain. As a result of inadequacies in the police investigation or even a lack of such an investigation, Noah's family have worked to piece together his final journey. They have walked the route and followed up on the hundreds of security cameras that cover it. When Noah's mother, Fiona, put out a public call for people with phone evidence to come forward, they did so. A grieving family should not have to conduct an investigation into a loved one's death. It is completely unacceptable to think that this family is fighting for answers and justice. The family have started the #RememberingMyNoah campaign and have been trying to raise public awareness of their campaign south of the Border also. The Donohoe family needs help to get these answers. I have been urging the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, and the relevant Ministers to help. People in the North need to have confidence in the PSNI to investigate all crimes regardless of the circumstances. The reason I bring it up is because if Noah's case happened down here, as things stand without the Bill if somebody was tried Noah's name would be erased from our memory afterwards. This is what we need to prevent and what the Bill will prevent.
Another tragic aspect of this topic is that of murder-suicides within families. How many times have we been rocked by tragic news of suspected murder-suicides, most usually the father as the perpetrator of the violence killing his wife or partner and children? Between 2000 and 2020, there were more than 30 murder-suicide cases in Ireland, with 146 people, mostly women and children, killed in their own home or by family or partners. In May 2019, the then Minister for Justice, Deputy Flanagan, announced that there would be an independent specialist in-depth research study on familicide and domestic homicide reviews. The research was to be led by Norah Gibbons and was to report back to the Government, with recommendations, after 12 months. Where is this review? The website is still live but does not seem to have been updated since 2019. The lockdown saw a huge increase in the number of people accessing domestic violence helplines and Barnardo’s and Childline reported increases in the number of children contacting them. This matter is very topical and the study should be completed.
A HSE briefing on murder-suicide was published in December 2017.
This briefing states that the National Suicide Research Foundation has examined the international evidence and the findings indicate the following: the perpetrators of murder-suicide are most commonly male; the mean age of perpetrators is between 40 and 50 years; fathers are the main perpetrators of filicide - the killing of one's own child - and spouse homicide; fathers, rather than mothers, are more likely to take their own life or attempt suicide following homicide; and two thirds of fathers killed, or attempted to kill, their spouse or partner in these acts.
This truly is one of the most tragic topics to be discussing and legislating for. As usual, I think about the ability to prevent such crimes. Where are the early intervention services? Where are the timely, accessible and affordable mental health supports? Where are the supported accommodation options for families trying to keep safe or for those seeking help?
In my contributions to the justice committee earlier this week, I brought up the subject of male violence against women, which is relevant here also. I acknowledge that it is not only fathers or men perpetrating these heinous crimes but data show that they are the majority. Why is our society structured in such a way that either glorifies violence against women or enables it?
We had an interesting discussion in the House about post-legislative reviews. It was acknowledged that the Oireachtas has improved greatly on pre-legislative scrutiny. However, there seemed to be a growing consensus that there is a need to look at how enacted legislation translates into enforcement. This is an area that requires more resources in the prevention stage. Hopefully, the review on familicide and domestic homicide will shed some light on what we, as a State and a society, could be doing to avoid such tragedies. In an ideal world, such a review of the legislation before us today would not be needed as it would not exist but, unfortunately, that is not our reality. However, there are measures the Government can take to not worsen the pain of bereaved families, and that includes this legislation and allowing families to name their loved ones.
We have also been hearing increasing reports of young children being used as drug runners and being exploited by criminals. In January of this year, the Irish Examiner ran a story on the annual report of the Blanchardstown Local Drug and Alcohol Task Force. The report found that the average age of drug runners had reduced from 13 years of age to ten years of age, with some evidence suggesting that children as young as eight years of age can be used to carry and deliver drugs between dealers.
I welcome recent discussions around the Criminal Justice (Exploitation of Children in the Commission of Offences) Bill, which would make it an offence to compel, induce or invite a child to engage in criminal activity. The crime would carry a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison. However, those working on the ground have said that the legislation would be very difficult to enforce. There are huge issues around intergenerational crime and poverty, peer pressure, threatening behaviour, extortion and intimidation to be addressed. It is simply not enough to say, "The gardaí are on your side". Many of the communities where children are lured into taking part in criminal activity do not have a positive relationship with the Garda. They are communities which have been targeted, vilified, abandoned and stigmatised over many generations.
The 2017 Irish film, "Michael Inside", by Frank Berry, is a powerful representation of how easy it is for young people to become involved in crime. The protagonist of the film, Michael, is 18 years old, but it is an accurate representation of how teenagers and young children become embroiled in the criminal justice system. In many communities, the worst thing anyone could be is a "rat" and they put their family in danger by speaking out. That is the reality.
In conclusion, I will be supporting the Bill but I am urging the Government to do more to protect vulnerable children. This Bill is certainly a step along the right road and, hopefully, we will keep going.