Here’s hoping we’ll be free to make up our own mind on divorce

Lads, what’s going on? Have ye forgotten the floodgates? The end of civilisation as we know it? The heavens falling in? Or have ye just lost your bottle, and given up the ghost entirely?

We’re going to have a divorce referendum in a few weeks’ time.

Assuming the people vote yes, as I hope they will, “the Constitution will no longer require a person applying for a divorce to have lived apart from his or her spouse for at least four years. The minimum period of four years of living apart set out in the Family Law (Divorce) Act 1996 will continue to apply, unless and until the Oireachtas changes the law.”

That’s the language of the Referendum Commission, set up to supervise the voting and to answer all your questions on the issue. To its language, can I add the following: Once the referendum is passed, the Oireachtas will be free to decide the terms on which divorce will be allowed in Ireland.

In order to conform with the Constitution as it will then stand, the only things a court will have to consider is (a) if there is no prospect of reconciliation within the marriage, (b) that adequate provision has been made for spouses and children, and (c) that any other law passed by the Oireachtas has been complied with.

Talk about the wheel turning full circle.

If our existing Constitution had never existed, and we were a progressive, tolerant, live-and-let-live society, this is pretty well precisely the kind of divorce legislation we would have.

Give or take a year or two, our Constitution is 80 years old. For 60 of those 80 years, the Constitution said, explicitly and in one syllable, that the circumstances in which you could get a divorce in Ireland were zero. Zilch.

Never mind that you might have irreconcilable differences in your marriage. In Ireland it didn’t matter if you were married to a serial philanderer, a constant abuser, or someone convicted of a string of serious crimes. Once you were married to that person, no matter what they did, you were married for life in the eyes of Irish law.

In the 1980s, after we’d had 50 years’ experience of what an inflexible and sometimes barbaric law that was, we tried to change it, to enable the Oireachtas to provide for the dissolution of a marriage that was irretrievably broken down. We tried, and we ran into the most divisive and bitter campaign any of us had experienced up to that moment.

Priests and bishops all over the country told us that we would destroy the family. Organisations were set up to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds campaigning against any change. Families quarrelled on the issue, friends fell out, politicians left their parties. We tried back then, and we failed.

Ten years later, we tried again. This time we succeeded, but only just. The responsible minister at the time, Mervyn Taylor, had spent years bringing preparatory legislation through the Dáil.

The effect of his work was such that by the time we asked the people the question in 1995, nearly everything that could be done to enable people to get out of a broken or abusive marriage had been done.

The only thing left was to give people a right to remarry, if that was what they wanted. Mervyn Taylor (and the rest of us) believed the people would only vote for that if the conditions were restrictive — and that’s where the four year period of separation came from.

And again in the nineties, despite now 60 years of experience, that change squeaked through in the face of a bitter and divisive campaign. “Hello Divorce, bye-bye Daddy”, it said on thousands of posters all over the country. The floodgates will open, thundered the advocates of no change on broadcast after broadcast.

As it nearly always used to in those days (less so now, thank goodness), fear almost triumphed in that referendum too. It was always said afterwards that the only reason we won was because it was a sunny day in Dublin and lashed rain in the more conservative west. Whatever the reason, we decided in November 1995 to risk the floodgates in favour of a more reasonable approach to broken marriages.

But the floodgates never opened. Eurostat, which gathers the figures across Europe, shows the number of divorces in Ireland in the most recent year available as 0.7 per thousand persons in the population. That’s the lowest in the EU, oddly enough — lower even than Malta, which only introduced divorce in 2011.

Maybe that’s the reason the architects of the floodgates, the predictors of the end of the world, have gone so silent this time. The Iona Institute, for example. You might remember them from virtually all the recent referenda, where they were always on the no side. I remember their leaflet on equal marriage, with the odd title of “A Mother’s Love is Irreplaceable — Vote No”.

So if you’re going to find a reasoned argument — or even just a tirade — against the next change, you’ll get it from the Iona Institute. I actually went to their website, wondering what fire and brimstone I’d find.

But there’s nothing. I thought I had found a very detailed legal opinion about the rights of parents in light of the proposed referendum, but as I began to plough through it (it was a struggle) I quickly realised that this was about the 2015 referendum on equal marriage. They have yet to post a single statement on their own website about a referendum that’s due to take place in a few weeks time on a subject so dear to their heart.

And then I remembered. Of course. Iona are up for marriage and the family. But only heterosexual marriage and heterosexual families.

They’ve always been totally opposed to divorce, but they’re probably struggling to figure out how to respond to the idea of a gay couple getting divorced. That’s probably what’s stopping them launching their big anti-divorce campaign.

Or maybe, just maybe, there’s a dawning at last. In all the recent referenda we’ve had, we’ve made decisions that enable people to live their own lives, deal with their own dilemmas, express their own love for each other in their own way, trust their own judgments. We’ve taken a view that in the difficult personal choices that people sometimes have to make, there’s no reason why we should claim to know best.

Maybe those who have always claimed to know best what’s good for us, and who used to be able to impose that on us with complete authority, have gradually realised it doesn’t work any more.

Maybe we’re going to be allowed to make our own judgment this time, without hectoring, without misinformation, without scare-mongering.

It might be too soon to say it’s going to happen that way. There’s still time for a bishop or two to take to the pulpit. But if it did, and if we were allowed to make up our minds this time without the politics of fear, wouldn’t that be some change? And wouldn’t it be great!

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