Monday 19 August 2019

Rewind to 1995: a bitter campaign results in a narrow win for Yes

Change: Voting at St Mary's NS in Fairview in the 1995 referendum.
Change: Voting at St Mary's NS in Fairview in the 1995 referendum.
John Meagher

John Meagher

They are words that have become the stuff of Irish political legend. In the charged atmosphere of the referendum count in Dublin's RDS in November 1995, anti-divorce advocate Úna Bean Mhic Mhathúna urged victorious campaigners to, "G'way, ye wife-swappin' sodomites". Her rejoinder provoked laughter, but for the months in advance of the vote there was little to arouse mirth.

It was the referendum that saw more rancour and recrimination than any before or since as the Fine Gael-Labour coalition on the Yes side, stood up to the Catholic Church and assorted conservatives, including Mhic Mhathúna's Youth Defence on the other. Fianna Fáil, in opposition, supported a Yes to divorce, an about-turn from 1986 when the party had vigorously campaigned for a No vote. And yet, veteran FF stalwarts like Des Hanafin were vehemently opposed to divorce and were aghast when the vote was carried by the slimmest of margins - just 9,114 separated Yes from No.

The bishops had changed their tune too. In 1986, a central plank in their argument were the potential problems caused by property division, but in 1995 they were arguing that "any undermining of the meaning of the marriage promise would profoundly damage the stability of society."

Because the government - with Taoiseach John Bruton at the helm - had rowed back on the liberal wording that had lost it the 1986 referendum, there was widespread belief that the Yes vote would be carried early in the summer.

There had been significant changes in Ireland since the referendum of almost a decade previously: the Judicial Separation Law came into effect in 1989 and helped to alleviate some of the stress that those wishing to leave their marriages had felt; Mary Robinson was elected the country's first woman president in 1990; and, in a move that would speak of greater tolerance for all, homosexuality was finally decriminalised in 1993.

Furthermore, rumblings had begun about the clerical sex abuse that would threaten to tear the Catholic Church apart as the 1990s wore on. But unlike the Marriage Equality Referendum of this year, where the Church largely took a back seat, the Catholic hierarchy still felt emboldened enough in 1995 to argue strongly that the introduction of divorce would threaten the sanctity of the Irish marriage.

The No side liked to see itself as the outsider taking on the Establishment and various D4 liberals. It was made up of a loose collection of vested interests, including the Christian Centrist Party and Teachers Against the Amendment. It also had some high-profile figures who became staples on TV as summer gave way to autumn, including the law expert William Binchy and ex-High Court judge Rory O'Hanlon.

Government TDs campaigned strongly for a Yes vote, including future president Michael D Higgins, but for many people that year, it was the Divorce Action Group led by Mags O'Brien that was most persuasive in making them vote yes. Then separated for 15 years, the articulate O'Brien helped put a human face on the issue. In 1995, some 80,000 separated Irish people were trapped in legal limbo.

The "Hello divorce... bye bye Daddy" posters were dismissed as scaremongering by the Yes side, and yet they probably gave some wavering voters pause for thought.

A newspaper poll the week before the vote suggested Yes would be carried - just - and it was enough to redouble efforts to get all Yes voters to the ballot box. Heavy rainfall in the west was deemed responsible for the comparatively low turnout there - a blessing for urban Yes voters who came out in their droves.

Ultimately, the vote was carried in the cities - an urban-rural divide that spoke of two very different Irelands. The resulting map would look very different 20 years on, when it came to the vote for gay marriage.

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