On the Children’s Referendum
The Government statement that the proposed children’s rights amendment to the Constitution will be a “strong, robust article designed to enhance the constitutional protection of children from abusive situations” is somewhat lacking in credibility. Already we have two child-specific constitutional obligations in our Constitution, neither of which is implemented.
The first is the obligation on the State to provide for free primary education. It isn’t free and it is but a pious aspiration. The second issue that concerns us and many parents – including those who made their heart-broken feelings known to the Irish Human Rights Commission in 2010 – is the obligation on the State to ensure that any child may attend any school which is in receipt of public money without being indoctrinated while in class (Article 44.4.2).
Under human rights conventions children whose parents don’t want them indoctrinated in a particular religion are entitled not to be marginalised, discriminated against and disadvantaged in the exercise of this right. The Whitaker Commission on the Constitution (1996) acknowledged that the treatment of such children now is unconstitutional. This was, at last, recognised by the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, when he set up a Committee on Pluralism and Patronage.
This body recommended that the arrangements for religious instruction and formation in our stand-alone national schools, ie, where there’s no inclusive school available locally, must be changed. This is to ensure that the children of non-religious and minority religion parents are not denied their constitutional rights in publicly-funded schools under the patronage of a particular Church. It is not good enough that youngsters be left twiddling their thumbs for at least two and a half hours at the back of the class while the rest learn their prayers in the same room. They are entitled to respect and to effective education in what is already a very short teaching week.
The failure of the Government to move on Professor Coolahan’s Committee’s recommendations for stand-alone national schools is most disturbing and one has to question whether the commitment to their constitutional obligations to children is a genuine one in the light of this. We hope that undue deference to the interests of institutional churches is not trumping the existing constitutional rights of parents and their children.
The Government should act now to remove the appearance of insincerity by giving effect to their existing constitutional obligations to children before the referendum date. If time is too short then it would be better to defer the referendum until this is done and, having regard for our financial predicament, hold it with the next national elections.
3 Seaview Terrace, Dublin 4
On community television and Saorview
As the analogue television service was switched off after 50 years on the 24th October, the focus was very much on TV’s past. In contrast to the promises made during the (failed) bidding process for the commercial DTT (Digital Terrestrial Television), there were no exciting new packages of channels enticing us to switch. Even some of those new channels which were supposed to be on the free, public digital terrestrial service, such as Oireachtas TV, didn’t manage to negotiate carriage on RTÉ’s new network.
The Department of Communications invested in an advertising campaign which was not allowed to really promote the option of non-subscription television, instead treating terrestrial television as a relic, of interest only to the elderly and uninformed. The figure of 15% of the population accessing terrestrial television was repeated ad nauseum – ignoring the second TV sets in so many homes, which were still relying on the ‘rabbit’s ears’.
This was a huge missed opportunity. Community Television in Ireland responded to the BAI’s request for expressions of interest in new digital channels with an imaginative partnership between local community TV in Dublin, Belfast and Cork to create the first true 32-county channel, transmitted North and South. While receiving positive words from the regulator, Irish policy is too mired in a commercial pay TV model which has failed to see a way to supporting new services coming on board. This limits the options for Saorview viewers to the five existing domestic channels (RTÉ 1 & 2, TV3, 3e, TG4) and some rebadged RTÉ content (RTÉ News Now, RTÉ jr, RTÉ 1 +1) rather than the 40+ channels available in the UK and technically viable for the spectrum.
In the UK, the switchover to digital was combined with a bidding process for a new local TV mix, which saw three community channels win out in three of the pilot cities – Grimsby, Sheffield and Liverpool.
When the new government took office they were faced with an economy and society saddled with debt and huge amounts of under-used resources, whether physical or human capital. It is unfortunate to see our broadcasting sector in the same situation, with RTÉ Networks saddled with a €70m transmission system designed for a commercial digital TV client who will not materialise. If our current Minister for Communications wants to offer a real choice to Irish citizens of free to air TV, if he wishes to see resources being used in innovative and exciting ways, he could do worse than allowing communities around Ireland use the freed up TV spectrum, even on a short term basis. If Minister Rabbitte is serious about providing true diversity and choice to Irish TV viewers, the DTT system needs to prioritise the addition of new mixes and new channels under a viable cost structure, based on current realities, rather than the failed commercial model of the previous government.
Manager, Dublin Community Television
Guinness Enterprise Centre,
Taylor’s Lane, Dublin 8