If we value fatherhood, we must also value marriage
From time to time in Britain you get newspaper headlines declaring that the British marriage rate has plunged to the lowest level on record. Here in Ireland we imagine it could never get like that. In this country, we imagine marriage is in rude good health. But it's not.
New figures released by the Central Statistics Office show that our marriage rate is actually lower than Britain's and is below the average for the European Union as a whole.
In Britain, only 4.5 or so people per thousand get married each year. In 2011 the Irish figure was a miserable 4.3 per thousand. In America, the figure is a much higher 6.8. The marriage rate in Ireland peaked at 7.4 back in 1973, meaning it has fallen by more than 40pc since then.
These figures don't tell the full story though. In 1973 almost all of those marriages would have been a first marriage. Today, a growing percentage involves at least one person who has been married before, 12pc in our case.
That fact also helps to explain the growth in the number of civil marriages. Almost a third of marriages are now civil marriages. A person who is divorced and is remarrying can't marry again in a Catholic church. Therefore they have to marry in a civil registry office or a hotel or some such.
For that matter being able to marry in a hotel as an alternative to a church rather than a sterile registry office is also pushing up the number of civil marriages.
Finally, secularisation is doing it. Dublin is the most secular part of the country and therefore 43pc of marriages in Dublin are civil, not religious. That is only going to increase in time. Eventually, church weddings will be in the minority.
Here are some more facts that should shake us out of the delusion that marriage in Ireland is in great shape. They all come from census data.
In 1986, there were 40,000 separated people in the country. By 2011, this had risen to almost 250,000 separated and divorced people, a six-fold increase.
In 1986, there were so few cohabiting couples it wasn't even measured. By 2011 there were 143,000 cohabiting couples.
Finally, by 2011, over 300,000 children under 18 were being raised outside marriage, more than double the figure for 1986.
These are very big and very sweeping changes and I would say few people have more than a vague awareness of their full extent. You can't even begin to have a sensible discussion about marriage and the family without knowing the basic facts.
What should we do in response? Should we repeal our divorce laws? No. Should we return to the very harsh enforcement of the norms around marriage that once prevailed here? No.
But what we should aim for is a country where the odds of a person getting divorced are minimised, and the odds of a mother or a father having to raise a child on their own are also minimised. Raising a child with two parents is tough enough. Raising a child on your own is tougher still.
For this reason we ought to be aiming at a society where as many children as possible have the benefit of both their mother and their father (assuming they are fit parents) being fully present and active in their lives.
This is a win-win. The parents win because they have each other. The children win because they have both parents. Obviously where there is a high-conflict marriage it's often better for everyone if the parents go their separate ways. That's why we need to try and minimise the number of high-conflict marriages.
But if we want as many mothers and fathers as possible to raise their children together, we have to promote marriage. Nothing attaches a father to his children, and to the mother of his children, better than marriage. This is the main reason why practically every society in history has given special status to marriage.
This isn't to say cohabiting parents can't do a fine job. Of course they can. However, we know from the 'British Millennium Cohort' study that cohabiting parents break up more than twice as much as married parents.
It's also true that many fathers who live separately from their children nonetheless have plenty of contact with them. But again we know from British and American data that in about one third of cases where a child is raised by a lone mother, the child has no contact with the father, and in another third of cases has only periodic contact.
So there is simply no getting around the fact that marriage best connects a man to his children.
The question arises then, why aren't we more concerned about the relative decline of marriage? There are two reasons, I think.
One is that most of us don't know the facts. The second is ideological. We're so committed to promoting every lifestyle choice and saying one is as good as any other we can't bear to admit that one particular lifestyle choice, marriage, is generally better for society, better for the children and better for the couples.
The CSO figures released this week should amount to a wake-up call. So should the census data. As marriage declines, so does the number of fathers who are connected to their children and to the mothers of their children.
Therefore if we value fatherhood in particular we have to value marriage and we have to do a lot more to reverse the decline of marriage in our society.