A constitutional referendum is to be held in the 26 Counties to protect the rights of children, probably in the Spring.
The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern made the surprise announcement about the referendum plan in an address to party candidates on the eve of the Fianna Fail Ardfheis, which takes place this weekend in Dublin.
Minister of State for Children Brian Lenihan will begin a process of consultation with Opposition parties and agencies involved in childcare in the coming week in an attempt to get agreement on the wording of a constitutional amendment.
The move has been broadly welcomed by the Opposition parties, despite some suspicion that the timing of the move is intended to boost support for the coalition government ahead of the forthcoming general election, due in May.
If considered necessary, it is thought a referendum on the St Andrews Agreement may be held on the same day.
According to Government sources, the referendum will not be held on the same day as the forthcoming general election because the complex wording is likely to involve the amendment of more than one article of the Constitution.
The constitutional change will be designed to give greater protection to children in the area of abuse, adoption and custody. Ireland has signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and this is to be incorporated into the constitition.
The Taoiseach said last night that it had become increasingly clear that the inadequate recognition in our constitutional law of the rights of children as individuals had to be addressed, and an all-party Oireachtas committee had reported on the issue last February.
“I believe that the fundamental law of our land, the Constitution, should fully reflect our commitment to valuing and protecting childhood. I believe we should make provision in our Constitution for children to be protected from maltreatment, neglect or abuse,” Mr Ahern said.
“I would also like to see the Constitution have a specific provision which requires that, in relevant circumstances, the welfare of the child should be the paramount consideration. And we need to explicitly set out rights of the child in our Constitution. My priority is to find a wording for our Constitution that will reflect the desire of the Irish people to establish robust safeguards for the rights and liberties of all the children of our nation.”
The Opposition parties have called for more detail on the proposed referendum.