The issue of the rights of Fathers, especially those who are unmarried and separated, is one that becomes prominent for short periods of times every couple of years. I have to say, its not an issue that I spend too much concentration on for the most part.
However, in recent weeks, and by co-incidence, the issue has been raised with me by three separate constituents. In one instance a man approached me. He is the father of a three year old girl whom he has seen only four times since he and her mother split up when the baby was around two months. He pays an agreed sum into the mothers bank account each month. The mother now has a new partner and they and the young child live in Munster and good luck to them.
The mothers attitude is simple and probably understandable. The girls father can see her whenever he likes but he must come to her and sort out his own accommodation etc. For one reason or another he has rarely made the trip and when he has he feels like a complete outsider in the child's' life. He has spoken to a solicitor but because he lives in a one-bedroom flat his legal advice is that he won't win the right to have his daughter stay with him. He is on the social housing waiting list in County Monaghan but because there is no legal agreement in place the odds on him being offered a house suitable for his daughter to stay with him are slim.
In the other two cases it was the children's paternal grandparents who contacted me. They love their grandchildren and yet never, and I literally mean never, get to see them. In one instance the father had negotiated the right to keep his child every second weekend. However, on one occasion, at the suggestion of his own mother he let his son stay with his Granny while he went for a few pints. You would think that everyone was a winner. The wee lad was spoilt rotten and Granny was in her element. But, when the boys mother was told what had happened she withdrew from the previous agreement and now the boy and his father have four hours together every second Sunday.
In the third case another Granny approached me. Her son and his partner have just separated. His wife and their two children are living in the family home. He continues to pay half of the mortgage and household bills and after he has paid his own rent he barely has enough to purchase food. Possibly because the separation is a new one and emotions are running high his access to his children is often denied. He is currently (or rather Granny is) pursuing every legal avenue available to resolve the situation.
In each of these cases there are decent fathers who only want to play an active part in their children's lives. Indeed, I have no doubt that in each case the children's' mothers are also decent people who love their children dearly.
I also know that there are many separated fathers who don't step up to the mark in the care of their children and the only person stopping them is themselves. I know many mothers who desperately want their children to spend time with their father but he's never about.
Separated Fathers have responsibilities that they should live up to.
But, they should also have legally protected rights.
As it stands they don't have. In the case of an unmarried separated father their rights are almost nill. They have no say in naming the child - it is most often the case that the mother will give the child her surname without consulting the father (I'm not saying that the child should take one name or another, only that it should be an agreed position in cases where the father wishes to participate in the child's life). In some instances the child is registered without the fathers name on the birth cert without his knowledge.
But these are in fact, only minor issues. The real difficulties arise when a father is denied or given severally limited access to their children. This not only infringes on the fathers rights but also the children's.
There is a gross inequality at play in the current legislation. Last week I wrote to the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, asking him to address this inequality. I am not too confident.
The fact is that most men affected by this injustice are fighting their own private battles and it appears that most are slow to make a public stand on the matter. The place where they should be getting support - i.e. from human rights and equality campaigners - appears to be quite on the subject. I suspect that there are so many areas where women have yet to achieve full equality that some people feel it doesn't merit campaigning for the one huge area for which men are at the receiving end.
The fact is that inequality is inequality no matter who it is directed at and where it exists we each have a responsibility to tackle it head on. It's no less than children deserve.