A CLOSE-RUN THING

16 November 2012 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The passing of the proposed constitutional change presented to the people as the Children Referendum represents – notwithstanding the much closer than expected margin of outcome, and the low turnout of voters – an important decision.
In the end, it was a close-run thing – but a distinct, if cautious, imprimatur has now been given to the Government to framework legislation and go about the reform of child protection services in a manner that will give a weight of meaning to the wording of the amendment now constitutionally enshrined with the objective of giving children’s rights explicit importance in the fabric of the State’s functioning.
As Sinn Féin TD for Cavan/Monaghan and his party’s spokesperson on children Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin has stated, the Government now need to match words with actions – and these must be expedient, significant and transparent if the doubts and misgivings of those who opposed or deigned not to vote in the referendum are to be allayed.
There are many messages that could be drawn from the fact that 42% of those who voted were opposed to the amendment presented to them.
The Supreme Court ruling that the Government had breached the previous McKenna judgment by spending public monies on a campaign advocating a particular voting decision undoubtedly exerted a degree of influence.
Even if it confirmed those already opposed to the amendment in their distrust and suspicion of the Government’s stance more than it changed the mind of previously Yes-inclined voters, the finding is a very serious matter for the Government.
The fact that it holds out the possibility of the referendum outcome being subject to a legal challenge is not the core issue.
That the Government acted as it did seems in retrospect extraordinarily ill-advised given the relative freshness in the memory of the McKenna decision and its implications, leaving it open to charges of poor judgement, bad advice or arrogant disregard.
When the detailed judgment of the Supreme Court is delivered next month, it should be taken as the impetus for the publication of clear and binding guidelines governing the role and actions of governments in the conduct of future referenda.
The low voter turnout should not be interpreted exclusively in terms of apathy.
A good many people, we believe, were confused and conflicted about the issues the referendum raised – and made a considered decision not to vote lest they voted in error.
If one takes even a small portion of the number that didn’t vote as representing the conflicted, and adds this to the number of No voters, it is clear that the job of convincing the people as to the correctness of the decision ultimately taken is one that is far from over.
There is certainly a need for greater transparency to be brought to bear on some aspects of how the law functions with regard to the protection and rights of vulnerable children.
For very good reasons, court proceedings in this regard are mostly cloaked in privacy.
However, an unfortunate outcome of the ‘in camera’ rule that applies to family law cases is that a body of second- and third-hand perceptions of the nature of these proceedings and the decisions arrived at has filtered into the public consciousness, leading to presumptions that do not always equate with the factual reality of how these courts function.
The courts have on certain occasions in the past, when matters of important precedent or wider public significance have been deemed to be at issue, permitted the reporting of family law matters and other customarily ‘in camera’ hearings.
These have been exceptional instances, but the resultant media coverage have contributed to a clearer public understanding of the issues at stake, and a more informed public debate.
While the tendency of some Irish news vehicles in recent years to mine the courts predominantly for sensation creates a barrier to such reform, there remains a sufficiently strong tradition of responsible legal affairs reporting alive in both the national and provincial media to justify at least a limited degree of change.
We would respectfully suggest that the pattern of voting – and non-voting – produced by the Children Referendum merits a close examination of how reporting restrictions might be relaxed in important family law cases as a rule rather than as an exception.
This would give clarity to the currently confused picture the public has of this very important realm in our courts’ functioning – and would surely dispel some of the inaccurate and damaging myths that have built up around it.

YOUNG PEOPLE AND DRUGS
No modern parent will guide a child through adolescence without anxiety about their exposure to the temptation of illegal drugs.
When that anxiety is given substance by tangible evidence of a young person’s involvement in drug use, parents often do not know where to turn – and might be extremely reluctant to see in the agencies of law enforcement a source of assistance.
In this regard the message imparted by Crime Prevention Officer Garda Sergeant Noel Haraghy at Tuesday night’s public meeting of the Monaghan Town Joint Policing Committee was reassuringly understanding.
Sergeant Haraghy encouraged parents in the area with drug concerns to look upon the Gardai as a source of advice and aid that could prove crucial in steering a young person off a pathway that can progress precipitately from casual experimentation to dependence, and onward into exposure to serious personal risk and involvement in criminality.
Sergeant Haraghy’s excellent presentation delineated clearly the drugs dangers that teenagers encounter.
It was a refreshingly realistic rather than alarmist treatment of the issue, and the emphasis it gave to the education and assistance that the Gardai can provide in relation to drugs is worthy of note.
The resources devoted by the Gardai to apprehending the traffickers and distributors of illegal drugs, and the severe penalties received by such criminals upon conviction in the courts, is reflective of society’s abhorrence of this particular form of offending.
At the other end of the scale of severity, a measure of corrective guidance is often afforded by our policing and judicial systems for those whose early flirtation with drugs brings them under notice.
And, as Sergeant Haraghy noted, even before that stage is reached, the Gardai can perform a function of reassurance and cautionary advice that could help arrest a potential problem in its infancy.
Concerned parents should take heart in the Gardai’s understanding attitude to nascent drug risks among young people – and should not be afraid to call upon such aid if the need arises.

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