March 8, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

I’m pleased to see the Irish Examiner editorializing in favor of greater rights for unmarried Irish fathers (Irish Examiner, 3/7/19).  The piece begins with a trenchant quotation from Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for poetry, was wryly dubbed “Famous Seamus” by his friends.

Heaney’s poem honors his father and connects his farm labor with the poet’s own poetic labors.  Both men “dig.”  Given the value of fathers to children, the Examiner then poses the important question,
As the poet attests, fathers can inspire as well as love and nurture so why is it that the Irish legal system is so cruel to them?
Why do we still, after all these years, give primary custody to mothers while marginalizing dads?  It’s not for kids’ sake and it certainly benefits neither of the adults.  

And yet family courts and family laws throughout the English-speaking world routinely give primary custody to mothers.  In short, family courts like traditional sex roles and family laws make it easy for them to do so.  Irish law on unmarried fathers is a good example.
Considering how far we have come in advancing social legislation, it is shameful that in Ireland, unmarried fathers do not have guardianship rights even if their name is on their child’s birth certificate…
All mothers, irrespective of whether they are married or unmarried, have automatic guardianship. A father who is married to the mother of his child also has automatic guardianship rights but an unmarried father doesn’t.
The 2015 Children and Family Relationships Act modified matters by allowing a single father to be a guardian if he has lived with the child’s mother for a certain period but, in the event of a disagreement with the mother, he may still have to go to court to assert that right. Considering the ‘mother knows best’ default possession taken by many judges in family law courts, there is no guarantee he will succeed.
That’s putting it mildly.  As Dr. Roisin O’Shea demonstrated in her survey of Irish family court judges, the Tender Years Doctrine rules and judges are uninterested in fathers beyond the contents of their wallets.  That must change.  (Read my piece on O’Shea’s work here.)

The Irish parliamentary committee on justice and equality is meeting this week to consider family law reform.  Members could do nothing better than equalizing the parental rights of unmarried fathers and mothers.
Allowing same-sex couples to marry required a referendum; all this needs is a little compassion and commonsense. In extending the rights of fathers, the Government would be acknowledging the important role played by them and the profound influence they have on the social, emotional and intellectual development of a child.
Kudos to the Irish Examiner for getting it right on the needs of children, unmarried fathers and mothers.  Reform can’t come soon enough.

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