Friday 18 October 2019

John Downing: 'Political attitude to divorce shows just how much we have changed'


Stock photo
Stock photo
John Downing

John Downing

Historian, broadcaster and all-round national treasure John Bowman nailed it late on that Saturday evening, November 25, 1995.

"It's hello divorce - goodbye de Valera," he said on RTÉ as the nation learned that Irish voters had ended the constitutional ban on divorce by precisely 9,110 votes. It was less than 1pc and another vote in each ballot box nationwide could have changed the outcome.

Mr Bowman's comment was a play on one of the main anti-divorce campaign slogans: "Hello divorce - goodbye Daddy." But it also harked back to Éamon de Valera's 1937 Constitution.

Article 41.3.2 of Bunreacht na hÉireann simply stated: "No law shall be enacted providing for a grant of the dissolution of marriage." The ensuing decades brought many social and economic changes, including pressure for the introduction of divorce, but change came very slowly.

In a referendum in June 1986 more than six out of 10 Irish voters opted to keep the constitutional ban on divorce. That result came after a strong pro-divorce campaign which looked like being successful.

So that narrowest of results in 1995 had big implications, although it did not result in a rush for divorces. In fact, a quarter of a century on the institution of marriage in Ireland remains in pretty good health.

The Central Statistics Office tells us there were more than 22,000 weddings in Ireland in 2017. Church weddings remain the most popular choice, though civil weddings are gaining in popularity and people are living together for some years before marriage.

Marriage remains an important staging point and Ireland's divorce rate is the lowest in Europe. Dire warnings about undermining marriage back in 1995, and in the same-sex marriage campaign in 2015, have yet to materialise.

Tomorrow, voters are being asked to approve another constitutional change to divorce. As things stand, a couple must have lived apart for four of the previous five years before they can get divorced. This forces people who wish to divorce to remain married for much longer than many would prefer. Many must get a judicial separation years before getting divorced, increasing financial and emotional costs.

The suggested amendment removes all time restrictions from the Constitution and leaves it to TDs and senators to regulate. There will be a law fixing the time limit at two years that could be extended or curtailed in future, like all laws.

Over the weeks since the campaign for change was launched, there has been almost no opposition.

The Government, all the Dáil political parties and many civil society groups have backed a 'Yes' vote.

Sometimes, it is hard to believe how much we have changed as a society in the quarter century since we almost did not vote for divorce. Tomorrow's referendum will be carried handily.

Irish Independent

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