Broken marriages: the floodgates are a long way from bursting yet

DAVID QUINN is a valuable and important social commentator, perhaps the leading Catholic commentator in Ireland. While I would find myself in disagreement with him, and with his perspective, more often than not, I have always had a lot of respect for the honesty and passion with which he presents his case.

And his case is a simple enough one. As the director of the Iona Institute, he believes in “making the evidence-based case for marriage, and in making the evidence-based case for religious practice”.

The pity is that the evidence doesn’t always support the case he wants to make. And the greater pity is that when the evidence isn’t there, or isn’t there in a strong enough way, he can sometimes use evidence that simply doesn’t back up his argument enough.

Last week his institute published a report that, on the face of it, was pretty disturbing. It was called Marriage Breakdown and Family Structure in Ireland, and it was based on the results of last year’s census.

On page one, the first stark fact was set out. Here it is: “There are now 200,000 adults who have suffered a broken marriage. This is five times more than in 1986.”

That’s a pretty simple fact, isn’t it?

Marriage breakdown has increased fivefold among the Irish people in a mere 20 years.

What has caused the floodgates to open in this way? I use the term ‘floodgates’ because, as you will remember, that was the term widely used when divorce was introduced in Ireland about 10 years ago.

Divorce was only introduced in Ireland at the end of a long process of family law reform, and was designed in a careful — some might even say cautious — way to permit remarriage only when existing marriages have irretrievably broken down. Nevertheless, it was widely predicted by the opponents of divorce that there would be a rush to the courts and that marriage as we know it would be fatally undermined.

A fivefold increase in marriage breakdown in the 20 years since 1986 would seem, wouldn’t it, to prove that the opponents of divorce were right all along?

Now I hasten to add that the Iona Institute and David Quinn aren’t making the case that the introduction of divorce has led to this disastrous situation.

For reasons that will become clear (I hope), they couldn’t. Instead, in their paper on marriage breakdown, they put forward the rather odd position that their intention is to offer “only brief analysis of the tables, charts and maps presented here. In the main the data are left to speak for themselves”. But the data aren’t left to speak for themselves. Instead they are shaped and constructed into a pretty frightening picture. Nobody who cares about the future of Irish society can afford to ignore the fact that the family in Ireland is under considerable pressure. And I think nobody can reasonably disagree with the basic proposition that happy families are the best recipe for happy childhoods. But scaremongering doesn’t address any of the challenges facing Irish families, and neither does propaganda.

So let’s look at the figures in a little bit of detail. Before I do, let me quote one little bit of commentary from the Iona paper.

In their conclusions, they say “there is a debate taking shape in Ireland between what might be called the family diversity position on the one side and the pro-marriage position on the other. The family diversity argument states, broadly, that changes to family patterns are neutral in their effects on people and society, and that the State and society should not encourage one family form over another. The pro-marriage argument, which the Iona Institute supports, says that marriage is the best way of committing both parents of a child to its welfare and it believes the evidence shows this. Therefore, while all families in need should be helped, there is still a strong, child-centred argument for both State and society to favour marriage”.

That’s pure propaganda, in my view. There are people and organisations in Ireland who believe in a concept called family diversity. Their basic proposition is simply that different types of family exist, and that they should be treated equally, and not discriminated against. That’s all.

Let’s get back to the figures — the 200,000 adults who have suffered marital breakdown. A fivefold increase. How is it made up? Here’s how.

According to the 2006 census, the total number of married people in Ireland is 1,565,016. The total number of separated people (including people deserted by a partner) is 107,263. For every separated and/or deserted adult in the country, there are 15 who are married. The total number of divorced people in Ireland is 59,534 — about one in every 26 compared to the number who are married. And there are 31,795 people who describe themselves as remarried following the dissolution of a previous marriage. That’s about one in 50 of the married population.

If you add up the number of people separated, deserted, divorced and remarried, you get a figure of 198,592. And if you compare that total with the figure in the 1986 census (which was 40,347), you can claim that marriage breakdown has jumped fivefold. But divorce didn’t exist, and wasn’t measured, in Ireland in 1986. The right to remarry didn’t exist either, and it too wasn’t measured. The figures in the 1986 census referred only to separation and desertion (plus a minute number of foreign divorces). And of course, the population of Ireland in 1986 was three-quarters of a million less than it is now.

THE first census that was able to measure the number of people in Ireland who had availed of divorce since the constitution was changed to allow it was in 2002. It showed a total of 35,059 divorced people — compared to almost 1.5 million married people. The 2002 census also showed 98,779 people who were separated and/or deserted.

In other words, between the last two censuses, at a time when the population jumped by more than 300,000, the total number of divorced, separated and deserted people in Ireland increased by around 33,000.

It is in fact arguable that the rate of separation in Ireland has slowed down considerably, and that the rate of divorce has not gone anywhere near matching the apocalyptic predictions made at the time of its introduction. There is certainly no case here for an opening of the floodgates.

As I said earlier, none of that is to argue that marriage in Ireland isn’t facing a great many challenges. And the other thing the statistics don’t tell us at all is how many people, including children, are trapped in unhappy, sometimes violent, “families based on marriage”.

What it does tell us, I think, is that too much can easily be read into statistics. How much better it would be if we were having a debate about the need to develop family life and happiness in Ireland, whether it was based on marriage or not. There’d be a lot we could all agree about in that debate, without the need to overdo the statistics.

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