Saturday 7 December 2019

Try telling children from broken homes divorce is compassionate

Protesters at an anti-divorce rally in Dublin before the second divorce referendum in 1995. Photo:
Protesters at an anti-divorce rally in Dublin before the second divorce referendum in 1995. Photo:

David Quinn

The new year publication of selected State papers from 30 years before is an annual invitation to us to look down our noses on our recent past. We're invited to look back in horror at the battles of only a few decades ago over the likes of contraception, or sex education, or in this latest round, divorce. That's because 1986 was the year of our first divorce referendum.

That year, Ireland rejected divorce by an even bigger margin than the vote in favour of same-sex marriage two years ago. The tide was running only one way, however. Liberals were never going to sit back and accept the 1986 result, no matter how decisive it was. The people who really run this country, and by then it wasn't the Church, wanted divorce and they were going to get it.

The 1986 State papers, released a few days ago, give some insights into the thinking of civil servants and others at the time around the referendum of that year.

The papers included a speech by Ruairí Quinn, in which he said the referendum was a choice between "compassion and fear". The Labour Party campaign slogan was 'Put compassion in the constitution'.

Given that 63.5pc of us voted 'No' based on a 60pc turn-out, we obviously weren't a very compassionate lot in the eyes of Labour.

The State papers also mention a five-hour meeting that took place between representatives of the Catholic bishops and a team led by then-Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald.

The bishops repeated one of their arguments from the campaign, namely that marriage as a life-long union would become "legally obsolete". That, of course, was perfectly true. Before the referendum a marriage could not be legally dissolved. That was the whole point of the referendum. Now it can be, and even if you want to enter into a legally indissoluble union, you can't. It's not available as an option any more.

All dominant ideas are tremendously self-reinforcing. They emphasise whatever strengthens their arguments, and ignore or discredit anything that doesn't. In the end, this has its effect on public opinion.

By 1986, the Catholic Church's influence was already beginning to fade and the media was becoming stronger than it. Following 1986, RTÉ and the like continued to focus on the stories of those whose marriages had failed and wanted to divorce and start again. This had its effect on public opinion.

People never got to hear the stories of children who were hurt by their parents' divorce or separation. So, counterbalancing stories simply didn't get an airing.

A few years ago, two university students interviewed me for a project they were working on, a radio documentary they called 'Broken Hearts of Broken Homes'. They were themselves from broken homes.

I don't ever remember any major radio or TV programme interviewing the victims of divorce.

The result is that few of us, especially those under a certain age, can even begin to imagine why anyone could have ever voted against divorce. But the reason is actually quite simple; namely that by permitting divorce, you'd get more of it.

Contrary to the opinion of the Labour Party, this concern doesn't automatically mean you're lacking in compassion.

A person voting for divorce wants to give a person whose marriage has failed a second chance. But a person who votes against divorce is concerned that there will be even more misery if we end up with as high a rate of divorce as Britain or Sweden.

As it happens, our combined divorce and separation rate has not reached the levels of a Sweden or a Britain, or anything like it, but there has been a very big increase in the amount of marital breakdown all the same.

Back in 1986, there were 40,000 separated people in Ireland, according to Census data. By 1996, a year after we voted for divorce, that figure had increased to 94,000. But by Census 2011, the number of divorced or separated people had reached almost 250,000. It would be a surprise if Census 2016 doesn't put the figure in or around 300,000.

So, in the space of 30 years, the number of people to suffer a broken marriage has gone from 40,000 to something like 300,000. That is a big increase by any measure.

Liberals will say that previously people were staying in unhappy marriages, and there is some truth in that. But are we to believe that all the marriages that have broken down since then were unsalvageable?

And is personal happiness really the be all and the end all? Suppose one spouse is willing enough to carry on with the marriage, say, for the sake of the children, but the other is not. Why should the wish of the one spouse to be happy come before the happiness and wishes of the rest of the family? Do the 'Broken Hearts of Broken Homes' not come into the picture?

The latest batch of State papers gave us our usual opportunity to look down on the attitudes that existed 30 years ago and pat ourselves on the back for being much more enlightened now. But it is entirely smug and simplistic to believe that we are indisputably a better place now than then.

It was inevitable that we would eventually vote for divorce. However, the concerns of the 63.5pc who voted against it in 1986 were not unworthy and have to some extent proven justified because marriage breakdown has become much more common and has left a lot of victims in its wake.

Irish Independent

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