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Tuesday, February 23, 2010
THE ordinary people of Ireland are, it seems, changing.
Some of us may still have our dinner in the middle of the day but if those of us who do so are in our twenties, and share it with a partner, we are twice as likely to be cohabiting as we are to be married.
The depth of change this represents should not be underestimated. Not so long ago, certainly in the working life of men summoned to Rome to discuss "the Irish unpleasantness" with the Pope, this statistic, this defiance of the mores society once held dear, would have been unimaginable. Whether that was because we really believed the arrangement inappropriate or whether we were browbeaten by an authoritarian church — and very many of the laity — is ultimately a question for historians and psychologists. Figures published yesterday more than hint at an answer however.
A report — Family Figures — was funded by the Family Support Agency and produced by researchers from the ESRI and UCD, analysed census data made available for the first time in cooperation with the Central Statistics Office.
It put flesh on the framework that supports modern Ireland. Some of its findings are fascinating, all of them are interesting and many point to a need to match our legislative structures with our social structures. The report also laid another great Irish shibboleth to rest.
Prior to the 1997 introduction of divorce we were warned by conservative Ireland that the change would destroy the family. Hello Divorce, Bye Bye Daddy, was one of the threatening rallying calls. Wrong again.
Between 1986 and 2006 the total number of people whose marriages broke down jumped five-fold, from 40,000 in 1986 to just under 200,000 in 2006.
Non-nationals accounted for 18% of the 2006 figure.
Break-ups soared in the 1990s as a huge backlog was cleared but have now levelled off, with our rate low compared to international norms.
The report, however, does confirm that there are economic constraints attached to divorce. It found that, amongst couples who split up, divorce is favoured by the better-off.
The report sadly reinforced what we already know about social disadvantage and the consequences of the lack of opportunity — or ambition — to get an education. Family Figures reaffirmed that the least well-off are more inclined to be lone parents or to marry young, experience marital breakdown, and have large families. These findings prompted the ESRI to argue that support for those on low-incomes be preserved. Though it seems sensible to sustain programmes that support the weakest more must be done, especially in the field of education, to vigorously challenge so much of the inevitability the can sometimes surround these issues.
Launching the report Mary Hanafin, Social and Family Affairs Minister, said it would help drive Government policy. Let us hope she is right and that so many of our procedures designed for a society that no longer exists are updated to strengthen the world we live in.
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