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The Iona Blog

A politician brave enough to spell it out about the changing family

Author: Tom O'Gorman
Date: 13th June 2012

It often seems puzzling, given the overwhelming evidence showing that marriage is the best family structure for children, that politicians are so unwilling to acknowledge this and make policy accordingly.

This was one of the topics addressed in a very thoughtful speech made by Fianna Fáil Senator Jim Walsh (pictured) at the Seventh World Meeting of Families in Milan last month.

Senator Walsh laid out the extent of the problem of family breakdown.  

Referring to the UK said: “Between 1845 and 1960 there was only on average 5% of births outside marriage. By 2004 this had grown to 42% with the most spectacular increase among working class communities. This was attributed in part due to the collapse of industrial employment in those areas. Ermisch (2006) reported that once the trend begun it developed a life of its own and is now entrenched.

He then acknowledged that politicians had “failed to recognise, acknowledge, and attempt to arrest a trend which is clearly not beneficial to the interests of the single mother, children or society”.

Senator Walsh addressed the reasons why politicians fail to support and promote marriage which he said were many and varied.

Among these were socio-economic shifts and the pervasiveness of ideas such as secularism, individualism and feminism.

But he added that: “[O]ur mass media era, seeking instantaneous responses to issues, complex or otherwise, put politicians in reactive rather than pro-active mode.  

“It also tilts that balance towards political dependence on professional civil servants and communication staff, thereby creating politicians of image and perhaps lacking in substance and conviction.  

“The pace of modern political life, with too little time for informal dialogue and reflection, contributes to this shift also.”

Senator Walsh recalled his own experience of being expelled from the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party for voting against the then Government's Civil Partnership Bill.  

He said: “Thirty of us put a motion to our parliamentary party that the constitutional protection for marriage would be fully respected and that this matter would be addressed exclusively on issues which related directly to such relationships and not replicate marriage rights. Following a good debate the motion was accepted by the Minister for Justice and the Taoiseach.”

“However a year later when the Bill was published it was effectively analogous to marriage entitlements. Following discussions with the Minister and his officials, it became obvious that select officials were driving the detail of the Bill.”

Senator Walsh added that the short term nature of electoral politics was a further reason why politicians are not to the fore in promoting marriage.

He said: “Policy formulation will more often focus on the here and now. The very fact that the less stable forms of family have obvious defects and social consequences command attention for initiatives to address these in the short term. Prevention can be less easy to sell than cure, and, investment in relationship wellbeing has a longer time horizon, which makes it unappealing. Politicians prefer short term results within the electoral cycle.”  

Senator Walsh then cited research from Mexico showing children living in families headed by married parents do better in areas of education, physical security, mental health, physical health, more law abiding.....better employment prospects, income levels, addictions and subjective wellbeing.  

This research, he said, also set out “the much lower possibility of physical and sexual abuse within this family structure as compared to the other family units”.  

He said: “This finding is emphatically borne out of the report for the Conservative Party in Britain where such abuse is clearly the lowest in intact always – married families. The risk is three times higher in the step family, fourteen times higher in the always single mother alone, twenty times higher in the cohabiting- biological parents family (and also the Biological father alone), and thirty-three times higher in families where the mother cohabits with a boyfriend.  

“Indeed children in that latter category in Britain are seventy-three times more likely to suffer fatal abuse than a child living with their married parents. And despite these findings the Spanish research, for example, shows that marriage is highly valued in Spain but only 50pc perceive it as important for society and mot merely a private affair.”  

Senator Walsh said that the low priority given to marriage was “even more surprising when one factors in the economic cost of family fragmentation”.  

He said: “A 1998 U.S.A. report put the cost there at $112 Billion per year, amounting to over one trillion dollars in a decade, to cover associated costs in social programs, education and the criminal justice fallout. The estimate for Britain is £15 Billion, though I have seen a figure as high as £24 Billion per year with just 0.02pc spent on prevention.”

Proposing some solutions, Senator Walsh suggested that EU policy makers needed to “seek out best practice and encourage member states to embrace such programs as the highly successful Finnish homecare allowance who provide parents that do not use public childcare with a stipend they can use for their family budget or to pay a grandparent”.

He added: “Public policy should stop penalising marriage and support initiatives to educate the public about the benefits of marriage and the hazards of single parenthood.

“American research in a report entitled “The Empty Cradle” recommended that governments would test the effectiveness of well-designed social marketing campaigns on behalf of marriage, especially connecting marriage and parenthood. It has been shown that such campaigns at changing sexual behaviour, drug use, smoking habits and road safety can have a positive impact.”

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