Irish Premier Proposes Referendum on Children's Rights at Fianna Fail Party Conference

Associated Press, carried in International Herald Tribune [Ireland]
November 4, 2006

Dublin, Ireland: Prime Minister Bertie Ahern has proposed a national referendum on children's rights designed to ensure that past decades of abuse, particularly in Catholic Church-run institutions, cannot happen again.

Ahern made his pledge Friday night at the start of the annual conference of his governing Fianna Fail party, which is aiming for a third straight win in national elections next year.

Fianna Fail, which is pronounced "FEEN-uh Fall" and means "Soldiers of Destiny" in Gaelic, is the hearty perennial of Irish politics. It has won the most seats in Dail Eireann, Ireland's key lower house of parliament, in every election since 1932 and appears on course to do so again in 2007.

Ahern said the rights of children had traditionally been overlooked in Irish law — and proposed a national referendum, most likely to be held in March, to insert a new clause in Ireland's 1937 constitution spelling out these rights.

Ahern made his comments in light of Ireland's decade-long struggle to come to terms with the level of physical and sexual abuse against children in Catholic Church-run institutions, such as boarding schools, orphanages and workhouses.

"It is very clear that our country has frequently failed to respect and protect many of its children. Some of the worst cases of institutional abuse arose partly because of an environment in which the interests of children were often not recognized or were systematically ignored," said Ahern, who in 1999 issued an official state apology for the abuse suffered by children in those institutions.

"It is not enough for us to look at a terrible picture of past abuse and deplore it," Ahern said. "It appears increasingly clear that the inadequate recognition in our constitutional law of the rights of children as individuals has to be addressed. That is an essential first step in creating a new culture of respect for the rights of the child."

The Fianna Fail conference comes just months before Ireland's next general election, which could continue Ahern's 9-year run in power. That vote is expected in May or June.

Ahern in September was forced to admit he received secret donations and cash gifts from Irish businessmen in 1993 and 1994, a time when he was rebounding from a costly marital separation. But opinion polls indicate that much of the public sympathized with Ahern, whose personal popularity remains far higher than his opposition rivals.

The most recent poll last month put Fianna Fail support at 39 percent of the electorate, up eight points since May, a strong recovery. Fianna Fail won 41 percent of votes in the last election in 2002, when the party won 81 seats in the 166-member Dail Eireann and revived its coalition with the small Progressive Democratic Party.


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