The first time was irritating; the second plain galling; the third a near successful attempt to tip themselves over into an induced state of apoplexy.
I am, of course, talking about the latest spate of attacks directed towards the NGO and charity sectors from prominent anti-marriage equality campaigners. Wilfully dismissing children’s charities as mere bodies conveniently “cosying up to the government that funds them” indicates not just a lack of understanding of the critical function these organisations play, or a reminder of the glaring immaturity at the heart of our democracy, but an obscene attack on the fundamental principles of that democracy.
That these attacks are so casually and overtly made, suggests that those who make them labour under the misconception that charities occupy a narrow paternalistic role in which their work should only be seen on a collection bucket but not heard. Engagement of charities in the debate is clearly indicative of a cynical self-serving move to protect their interests, and a blatant trespassing into territories of the debate where they have no business straying. An unapproved challenge to the assumptions on the family by no campaigners from a sector whose credibility must be called into question. Not questioned, dismissed outright while ignoring the substantive points they make.
In promoting the notion of a democratic society, members of the anti-marriage equality campaign are at pains to remind their opponents of their fundamental right to freedom of speech. In upholding this right, they forget that it is society in all its diversity that must be facilitated to participate, if democracy is to be successful, irrespective of the implications for the official state. It is why the development of mechanisms for participation of civil society through NGOs and charity organisations occupies a cornerstone of any functioning democracy.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this fight includes the freedom to hold opinion and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through media and regardless of frontiers”.
Such declarations are driven by the need for civil participation, and the recognition that the evolution of a civil society, and the flows of unregulated information to citizens, cannot be left to legislators and governments alone. To that end, the proliferation and sustainability of NGOs and charities was essential, and their participation in public debate a necessity.
Historically in Ireland, these frontiers included the Catholic Church with support from a sizeable conservative fan-base (namely the State), whose firm grip on the channels of information left an indelible imprint.
In recent decades, a number of grassroots organisations have entered the public discourse with a variety of objectives under the common aim of seeking to represent and promote the rights and concerns of groups of citizens who have frequently been forgotten about in both politics and the media. There is no single centre of state power in any contemporary society. Or rather, there shouldn’t be. Sustaining the NGO and charity sectors ensures power is diffuse and dispersed through civil society. Or rather, it should be. The sector met this challenge with an impressive legacy of work already achieved over a relatively short period, and continues to do so despite relentless cuts to their income.
Without NGOs and charities in Ireland, there would have been no formidable challenge to the State and Church to acknowledge and address the abuse of children and the subsequent inquiries; there would have been no apology from the Pope for the wrongs perpetrated against the innocent children; there would have been no legislation developed to put in place mechanisms to prevent it from ever occurring on such a scale again; there would have been no support to the victims and survivors or eventual recourse to legal action against the perpetrators that stole their childhood and too many of their adulthoods; there would have been no support to single parents shunned and silenced by stigma to help give them a voice and advocate for the services and support required to give their children some semblance of a decent quality of life; there would be few family learning projects that foster healthy relationships between parents and children, and promote learning in the home; there would be more acute social isolation in housing estates thoughtlessly and greedily erected without any consideration given to the play and developmental needs of children or the mental health of their parents; there would be few Traveller children in receipt of voluntary out-of-hours learning to enable them to progress in a mainstream education system that continues to fail them.
The centrality of safeguarding the welfare of children in work undertaken by charities, and their commitment to giving children a voice, speaks for itself.
It is in this context that we are left in little doubt as to the integrity and independence of charities; and reminded of the obligation of the state to distribute the money that belongs to all citizens in common through those mechanisms that work our behalf to improve the lives of children, including those of no-campaigning parents. Certain commentators appear to have deliberately mistaken state responsibility for discretionary hand-outs. Without Europe etc. etc…
In recent years, the sector has suffered the most catastrophic cuts at a time when their services are most heavily depended on. Casualties include the Combat Poverty Agency, The National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism, various family support programmes; domestic violence services, and the well-documented Childline, among others.
Those competing for shrinking funds do so at the mercy of the most sophisticated performance management systems befitting private corporations in exchange for a fraction of the budget of public sector organisations. It is testament to their resilience they continue to produce robust evidence based research and findings from international best practice learning on the effect of same-sex parenting on children that can withstand an unmerciful kicking. That is not to suggest the sector is without flaws or faults; it is a mixed ability group with as many wasted and rusted halos as any other; but to question their credibility and independence in this debate is to make a mockery of the social justice for which they stand, and display an ignorance that ultimately undermines their own purported sincerity.
In a climate of consistent and relative poverty, against the background of intensifying austerity gnawing at the basic needs of the most vulnerable families, one would expect defenders of the rights and well-being of children to support these charities to raise their voice and sustain their services. Instead we are given mean-spirited curled-lipped dismissals in an attempt to discredit the one sector willing to put its dwindling money where the poor children’s mouths are.
Shame on them.