Divorce Referendum Passes In Ireland

By Marcella Fitzgerald, Militant, Vol.59 no.46, 11 December 1995

DUBLIN, Ireland—It's always been no for women in this country. No! No! No!... And now I've just voted Yes! This is how one woman explained her feelings coming out of the polling booth on Friday, November 24, when the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland held a referendum on whether to allow civil divorce. By a narrow margin of 9,000 votes, divorce became legal, ending a decades-long ban.

The vote to change the provisions of the 1937 constitution—which formally recognized the family as the basic unit of society and laid down that No law shall be enacted providing for the grant of a dissolution of marriage—was carried by 50.3 percent of the 1.6 million ballots cast.

The votes from the working-class districts in Dublin weighed heavily in the outcome. One-third of the country's population lives in the Dublin area. However, even in rural Ireland the vote against the reform was 15 percent lower than in a similar referendum in 1986.

While opinion polls indicated that 80 percent of those over 65 were against the option of divorce being introduced, there was a very high turnout of 20-30 year olds who, in their vast majority, were in favor.

Many here describe the result as the most serious rebuff to the influence of the Catholic church on legal and political life. It reflects the deepgoing changes in social attitudes in what is still a predominantly agricultural and rural society with a 93 percent Catholic population.

Despite an influx of overseas industrial investment, agriculture in Ireland still accounts for 42 percent of all foreign earnings. At the same time, a recent report by the Employment Equality Agency states that more women than ever are entering the labor force. By 1994, 327,000 women were working—36 percent of the workforce.

And for the first time the majority of these women are married rather than single. Most women workers hold low- paid jobs and earn 30 percent less than their male counterparts.

Bridget Price, a woman in her 50s and married for 30 years, gave her reasons for voting Yes. The church is giving us all a bad example lately. I'm a Catholic, I go to mass daily, but I still think we should have divorce.

The official position of all the main political parties was in favor of change, but most politicians did not campaign on the question. The Fine Gael-led coalition government proposed to hand 500,000 (1=$1.55) to an advertising agency and leave the campaign up to that agency, until it was blocked by a decision of the Supreme Court. In a suit initiated by Patricia McKenna of the Green Party, the court ruled it was unconstitutional to use public funds for only one side of the debate.

That decision was popular, including with activists campaigning to legalize divorce who this reporter spoke to. Several said they agreed a political fight was needed, with those supporting a Yes vote getting out and campaigning.

Officials of Fine Gael later claimed that groups pushing the No campaign were getting funding from Human Life International (HLI), a U.S.-based antiabortion organization. They publicized an unsigned copy of a letter by Peter Scully of the Divorce Action Group asking for an emergency donation of 40,000 from HLI. Scully and others in the No camp denounced the letter as forgery.

On the No side, the hierarchy of the Catholic church waged a vigorous campaign. Mother Teresa of Calcutta and numerous academics called for a vote against the amendment. Campaign posters throughout the state declared, Hello Divorce...Bye Bye Daddy, and Divorce will lead to 10 percent increase in taxes. In the predominantly rural western part of the country, the potential breakup of family farms if divorce was allowed was portrayed as a major issue.

Four days before the vote, Princess Diana of the royal family of the United Kingdom weighed in with her own hour- long broadcast on marriage and the family, stating that despite separation she did not want a divorce from her husband Charles, the Prince of Wales. The interview was widely watched and publicized in endless pages of newsprint in the following days.

On the last day of campaigning Pope John Paul made his effort to tilt the balance against reform. He called on Catholics in the Irish republic to reflect on the importance for society of the indissoluble character of the marriage bond.

Most of the campaigning for a Yes vote was carried out by activists from pro-divorce groups, including the Right to Remarry Campaign. Some 80,000 couples are separated in Ireland, and many have developed new relationships. Until this referendum they had no right to divorce and were unable to remarry.

Sinn Fein, the party leading the fight for self- determination in Ireland, campaigned for a Yes vote under the slogan Divorce is a Civil Right. Coverage in the party newspaper took on the arguments of many rightists, such as that divorce is imposed on women. Sinn Fein supporters pointed out that in Britain 72 percent of divorces are initiated by women and that in the 26 Irish Counties 75 percent of judicial separations are initiated by women.