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Ireland to vote on expanding rights for children

Government makes final push for amendment

DUBLIN — Ireland’s leaders issued last-minute appeals Friday for voters to amend the constitution to include stronger rights for children, making it easier for the state to protect children from abuse and for neglected kids to be adopted.

But the campaign to secure a ‘‘yes’’ vote in Saturday’s referendum took a surprise hit from the Irish Supreme Court.

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The court ruled that the government’s information booklet backing the amendment, mailed to every household in this country of 4.6 million, was not fully accurate and violated laws requiring the government not to fund only one side of a referendum argument.

The government apologized, resisted calls to postpone the vote, and urged voters to approve the measure regardless of the strong possibility that the amendment would face legal challenge if passed.

The court ordered the government to take down the bulk of material from its campaign website, which had a similar presentation of facts and arguments, but said it would be impossible to recall the booklets. The court had no power to order a postponement of the vote.

‘‘If we’ve made a mistake, we accept that, but don’t take it out on the children,’’ said Leo Varadkar, a government minister leading the campaign for approval.

‘‘This amendment is 20 years overdue. There are children in long-term foster care relying on us to vote yes. There are also thousands of people who are victims of abuse whose voices aren’t being heard,’’ he said.

Ireland’s 1937 constitution can be amended only through national referendums. Such votes typically involve polarized debates, with opposition parties often attacking the government onissues such as divorce, abortion, and neutrality.

Not this time. Every party and every child-welfare charity supports the proposed amendment, while only one of Parliament’s 166 members says he will vote no. All opinion polls indicate voter approval for the measure, in part because of Ireland’s scandal-plagued record on child protection to date.

For decades, reform-minded judges and social workers have called for changes to Ireland’s legal framework for protecting children. A series of incest and abuse cases have highlighted how care workers and agencies have identified children in wretched conditions and yet failed for years to extract them from horrific situations, partly because judges found that the law favored parents’ rights.

The Irish Times called for a ‘‘yes’’ vote in Friday’s lead editorial. It argued that rejection ‘‘would mark a step backwards towards a more rigid, forbidding society where children were frequently treated as legal ‘chattels’ within sometimes dysfunctional families.’’

Typically in Ireland’s divorce courts, the views of children are recorded only sometimes and second-hand via court-appointed experts, and the rights of the mother are paramount.

The proposed amendment commits the courts to hear direct testimony from children and ensure their views are ‘‘given due weight’’

Adoption laws are stranger. Children in long-term foster care cannot be adopted at all if their abusive Irish parents are married.

The government plans to pass a trove of legislation if the amendment passes .

One bill would explicitly make it a crime to hide information on a suspected child abuser. That measure appears particularly designed to combat the kind of systematic cover-up of child rape in Ireland’s Catholic Church, the subject of several fact-finding inquiries over the past decade.

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