01-12-2012 - Traces, n. 11

The facts answer

The Irish referendum and
A “State super-parent”

An amendment on children’s rights challenges a handful of people, who opposing it, discover the core of the matter.


For most of October and the first week of November, I was preoccupied with campaigning in a referendum about inserting an amendment on what are called “children’s rights” into the Irish Constitution.  I have long been suspicious of the “children’s rights” concept, because it appears to deny the special nature of the relationships between parents and children. Since children are ontologically and otherwise dependent on their parents, it is impossible to separate the rights of children from the rights of families. But this is exactly what the amendment sought to do, essentially recasting children as individualized entities with “rights” that could, in most cases, only be exercised–allegedly on their behalf–against their parents… by the State.
I believe the amendment was not about vulnerable children or their “rights.” It was an attempt to steal the rights of families, to place all parents in a position of permanent probation, reducing the natural function of parenthood to a caretaking role, with the State as super-parent of every child.
For the first time in my life, I became involved as an activist in a political campaign, advocating a “No” vote. I campaigned as an individual citizen, a parent, and a commentator. I didn’t send out any press releases, put up posters, or organize any rallies. I simply made myself available to speak about the amendment whenever I was invited to do so.
All the parliamentary parties, as well as most of the media and the self-styled children’s organizations urged a “Yes” vote. Also, a document from the Bishops clearly went toward that direction. I found myself among a handful of formerly unconnected individuals who now found ourselves occupying the space vacated by the political opposition, being invited onto radio and television programs to explain why we believed the amendment would undermine family protections.
We started out with just the tiniest level of public support: 4%–within the margin-of-error for zero. Despite having no money and being up against a massively funded campaign which included even the use of taxpayers’ money by the government, we ended up getting 42% of the vote. It was at once miraculous and, retrospectively, disappointing. Given another week, we might have won.
What did the experience teach me? That the conventional methods for understanding what is called “political” reality can only be taken so far. On the face of things, we didn’t have a hope of getting beyond single-figure percentages. But that wasn’t our objective. All we aimed for was speaking the truth about the dangers we saw in the amendment and leaving the outcome to the Mystery. The result has quietly shocked the country, and in doing so alerted many people to the possibility that there might be far more going on here than the sentimental pieties that the government and vested interests had led them to believe.
As I write, we prepare to make a legal challenge to the result, based on the fact that, two days before polling, the Supreme Court indicted the government for its illegal use of public funds in promoting a “Yes” vote. This we approach in precisely the same way as the debate. We do everything that is essential to mounting the challenge, but do not attach our total hopes to the outcome. What emerges will be another experience and will point us toward the next step.
It’s called freedom. It feels right.