Children have a right to a childhood free from alcohol harm – that right is not being upheld   

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Ireland is this week being examined by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on its progress in upholding children and young people’s rights. This is a hugely important process that allows the Committee to examine the government’s record in terms of children’s rights across all government departments. It also allows civil society to raise issues of concern in an international setting.
There is no doubt that there have been many positive changes for children, young people and their families in Ireland over the past number of years in Ireland, as very succinctly set out in the Children’s Rights Alliance civil society alternative report 2022, to which AAI contributed, Are We There Yet? (pages 9 &10). 

Unfortunately, however, despite all the strides made to ensure Ireland is a country that takes children’s rights seriously, there are just too many areas of very serious concern and too many breaches of children’s rights for Ireland to be self-congratulatory in Geneva this week. 

It would be remiss not to mention the damning report into Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) published this week, and we join with the Children’s Rights Alliance in calling for root and branch reform, starting at the top with the clinical governance of the service. 

Children and alcohol 

Moving onto AAI’s concerns in relation to children and alcohol – and there are many.  

Children’s intrinsic rights – survival rights, development rights, protection rights and participation rights are all impacted by problem alcohol use, not just in the home, but in wider society too. 

Children in Ireland are currently experiencing harm from alcohol in multiple ways, including:  

  • Exposure to alcohol during pregnancy (FASD) 
  • Being brought up in homes where there is problem alcohol use 
  • Exposure to risk on the streets from others who are engaged in alcohol use 
  • Being introduced to alcohol at an early age and exposed to harmful marketing practices 

It is inexplicable that that while the government vaunts its children’s rights approach in Geneva this week on the one hand, on the other, there is inordinate delay in commencing laws on our statute books for 4 years and counting that would do just that. The government’s own report to the Committee states that a core objective of the Public Health Alcohol Act is to delay the initiation of alcohol consumption by children and young people, yet a simple broadcast watershed to stop alcohol ads before 9pm has not been implemented. In respect of FASD, a lifelong disability for children, labelling of alcohol with warnings about drinking in pregnancy were also legislated for 4 + years ago but still have not been implemented – despite Ireland completing the  European Commission process last year which allows for this measure to go ahead. 

Ireland is estimated to have the third highest rate of drinking in pregnancy globally and with it one of the highest estimated rates of FASD with around 6000 babies born every year with this lifelong, entirely preventable condition which has serious impacts on the child’s development, education and life course. Labelling of alcohol products would help to bring about much needed change in this arena. We can only assume that business interests are preventing this measure from being implemented. 

Hidden Harm 

In its response to the UN committee on how to address violence and abuse within families, the government identified problem alcohol use as a major contributing factor and highlighted its Hidden Harm strategy.  

AAI has long highlighted that the hidden harm strategy, which highlights the issue of parental problem alcohol use, needs funding and an action plan, and cannot merely be another report collecting dust on a shelf. Parental problem alcohol use is an adverse childhood experience (ACE) and can led to others such as domestic abuse and parental separation. 

Ireland must develop a policy agenda that fully acknowledges—and responds to—the impact of toxic stress and trauma of such ACEs on the child’s development, health and well-being. 

The childhood years, from the prenatal period to late adolescence, are “building block” years that help set the stage for adult relationships, behaviours, health, and social outcomes.  

A large and growing body of research indicates that toxic stress during childhood can harm the most basic levels of the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems, and changes to the brain from toxic stress can affect such things as attention, impulsive behavior, decision-making, learning, emotion, and response to stress. 

This knowledge must be incorporated into how the State addresses the root causes of the issues that arise for children and families. One example of a low-cost intervention which could give immediate support for children impacted by domestic abuse is Operation Encompass which provides for data sharing between the Gardai and schools. Despite widespread acknowledgment of its value across three government departments the proposal remains mired in an interdepartmental quagmire.  

Implementing the CRC into domestic law 

These are just some of the issues facing children in terms of Ireland’s very unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Stagnation around issues like these show a clear lack of political awareness of the importance of children‘s rights as a key issue across all areas of the child‘s life – education, health, family life – and not just in the area of child protection.  

AAI believes that the only way to resolve this is for the Ireland to comprehensively implement the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) into Irish law. This has been called for by AAI’s patron Dr Geoffrey Shannon for many years and the Children’s Rights Alliance report urges the UN to recommend that Ireland establish an Oireachtas Committee to examine how we can do this. Incorporation of the CRC at a national level means that decision-making improves as policy makers understand children’s rights and issues. It also generates a culture of respect for children’s rights and leads to reform across society as we have seen in Scotland. 

Another important mechanism that would be hugely impactful for children, would be the establishment of Child rights impact assessments (CRIAs). This would mean that the impact of any proposed law, policy or budgetary allocation, which affects children and the enjoyment of their rights has to assessed and taken into account. It would involve a comprehensive training programme for all Government officials and decision-makers to support its implementation. This could be a game changer for children. 

Any of the issues raised above, if subject to a CRIA, would have been implemented long ago. How many more generations of children have to grow up in Ireland before we insist our government does its best to uphold children’s rights at every turn, and not just when it suits an adult agenda, or is an easy tick box solution? Upholding children’s rights isn’t always easy or comfortable, but it is always the right thing to do.