Ireland's Child Care Institutions during the 20th. Century. Fo'T: The most vivid and passionate stories - banished babies, cruel orphanages, old abuses of power - have concerned things that went unnoticed, or at least unarticulated, at the time. News has often had to be redefined, not as the latest sensation but as that which everybody knew all along yet could not say.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Time to look at writing an entirely new constitution

Monday June 5th 2006 Irish Independent

SOMETHING more troubling than a statutory catastrophe was triggered when the Supreme Court struck down the 1935 law on the rape of minors. It has proved to be the catharsis for a plague of ills long festering and long ignored in Irish society.

In Leinster House last Friday, the government was brandishing a legislative palliative to sedate its own backbenchers' electoral panic as much as the people's anxiety over the legal repercussions of the court's ruling. This was a government-in-crisis, reacting on the hoof to public rage but, once again, failing to see the bigger picture. The thousands of citizens would abandon their plans and routines on a rare sunny bank holiday Friday to participate in hastily-organised protests across the country indicated something seriously rotten in the State of Ireland. What many of those people had to say should have the politicians very, very worried.

"They're more interested in the pay talks in Dublin Castle," complained one young woman who had been serially sexually abused as a child. Another accused the government of being more concerned with SSIAs than people. Somebody else thought Bertie Ahern's make-up budget could be better spent on caring for the aged.

The protesters - mostly women and children carrying white flowers of innocence - decried the deaths of children on school buses, the pension abuse of elderly care residents, the horrors visited on the sick in A&E units and the general impression that the most vulnerable sectors are meted out second-class treatment. The people who said these things looked healthy and wealthy - proper Celtic Tigers - but theirs were the voices of the dispossessed.

Was it only six or seven weeks ago that we were celebrating the proclamation of the Republic with a parade of shiny soldiers past the GPO? Those who celebrated with self-satisfaction that day ought to think again because, judging by the articulated isolation of those people last Friday, we are living less and less in a Republic. And more and more in a fool's paradise.

There have been disparate calls since the Supreme Court judgment for a referendum to insert a guarantee of child protection in the Constitution. But why stop there? Why not take the bull by the horns and review the Constitution in its entirety? Bunreacht na hEireann is the blueprint of the nation, of this supposed republic of equals. While the nation has galloped beyond the horizon of recognition in the last decade alone, the Constitution has been our Lot's wife, looking back and frozen.

We need to rescue it from the deep freeze of history for, in many parts, it no more reflects us than does Dorian Gray's picture. Ireland, like it or not, is a secular society of many religions and none but still Article 44.1 acknowledges that "the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God."

The preamble is written in the name of the "Most Holy Trinity" and the president's oath genuflects to God. The Constitution espouses paternalistic, Catholic social thinking. It is invoked to deny children at risk the right to directly access State services. It is haunted by the ghost of the X Case and asserts the traditional nuclear family as the only acceptable model even though gay partnerships are long past being curiosities. Article 41.2 (1), over which many women fled Dev's Fianna Fail in the 1930s - before the advent of the microwave and the centralised vacuum cleaner - is the handcuffs tying women to patriarchal stereotype.

In its day, the Constitution was a noble document. But, by the yardstick of modern Ireland, it reads like a hybrid of Home Rule and the 10 Commandments.

Bertie Ahern's commitment to the ethos of volunteerism appears genuine but it is never going to work as long as large numbers of apparently have-it-all citizens feel that some of us are regarded as more equal than others. Bunreacht na hEireann is our mission statement. Let's dust it down and make a re-declaration of the standards by which we want to live.