The May 24 referendum to remove the waiting period for divorce from the Constitution and allow the Oireachtas to legislate will not result in ‘quickie divorces’, argues Josepha Madigan.
When it comes to so-called quickie divorces, Russia is up there leading the way.
Russians tend to marry younger than their western peers and their divorce rates are much higher.
In 2016, the ratio in Russia of divorces to new marriages was 1:1.6 meaning that Russians divorce more often than they marry. In recent decades over 60% of marriages in Russia ended in official separation.
The divorce figure in Ireland is nowhere near that. In fact with a divorce rate of one-in-10, we have one of the lowest rates anywhere in the world. So why has it been claimed by opponents of the May 24 referendum that by removing the waiting period for divorce from our Constitution, Ireland is on the slippery slope to quickie divorce territory?
I reject that claim. Quite simply we are not. On polling day we are being asked to remove the waiting period for divorce from the Constitution and allow the Oireachtas to legislate on where a couple has been separated for two out of the previous three years. This would bring us into line with what is the European norm and nobody talks about slippery slope divorces across Europe.
In my opinion, divorce is an issue of social policy but we have a tendency to put restrictions on social policy into our Constitution. This is problematic as these restrictions reflect the values of our society at a fixed point in time on an issue where public opinion is ever-evolving and changing. The Constitution is not the place for this matter.
Our Oireachtas legislates for a wide range of social issues so why not divorce? If passed, the Oireachtas will treat this issue with respect and I have no doubt our successors will also deal with it responsibly going forward. This is a moderate proposal and not radical as some suggest.
That will not change with this referendum. I have witnessed first-hand the pain and trauma that the time-limit which is currently enshrined in our Constitution under Article 42.1.3 inflicts on families. Our four-year wait period exacts an enormous toll on many people who are left unable to move on with their lives.
They are often caught in a long-drawn-out court process that only serves to increase acrimony in the long run. Family relationships become further strained, often beyond repair.
The American writer Emily V Gordon said ‘divorce is one of the most destructive, emotionally traumatic experiences a human being can go through, it’s hard, it hurts, and it takes a long time to feel normal again’. The end of a marriage is like a bereavement and families going through such trauma should be treated with compassion and respect.
In the 2016 census, 118,000 individuals in Ireland described themselves as separated, 283,802 people were divorced, separated, or remarried and more than 103,000 people had gone through a divorce since 1997.
So how is it fair to inflict a draconian 48-month wait on thousands of people?
I believe two years is a more reasonable period. It will allow couples time to obtain legal advice on property, pension’s access, maintenance and other ancillary reliefs.
But it is important to stress that the other provisions for divorce in Article 41.3.2 of the Constitution specifically in relation to there being no prospect of reconciliation and that proper provision is made for both parties and any dependent children, will remain as is.
Irish legislation should reflect the reality that some marriages do break down. It should be designed to assist those who have separated to move on with their lives in a more humane way. It should be the responsibility of the Oireachtas, as legislators, to deal with the realities of marital breakdown, not the constitution.
Four years is too long to have to wait before you can even initiate divorce proceedings. Our current system is too lengthy, too restrictive and ultimately unfair on separated couples, both financially and emotionally.
As director of elections for Fine Gael in this referendum, I want to ensure the process for obtaining a divorce is fair, dignified and humane and allows both parties to move forward with their lives within a reasonable timeframe.
To that end, I will lead a vigorous campaign to ensure a Yes vote. I and my colleagues will debate the issues in public and through the media.
As a party, we will produce campaign material and push our message out through social media channels.
The Fine Gael Parliamentary Party has been briefed and I have written to all elected members and local election candidates, encouraging them to canvass. Every house in the country will also be provided with material by the Referendum Commission.
This proposal has widespread support across all political parties and civil society. I’m encouraging all groups to help get the vote out. To date, polls show support for reducing the ‘wait’ period spanning all genders, age groups, social classes and regions, including rural areas. However, we cannot afford to be complacent.
The irreconcilable breakdown of marriage causes immense sadness and stress for all concerned.
A shorter waiting period will allow all concerned to gain finality and certainty more easily. It shortens stressful and painful legal proceedings and allows for a fresh start.
Nobody expects their marriage to fail. But the sad reality is that some do. This referendum will treat separating couples in a compassionate, pragmatic way by providing for divorce after a reasonable time that does not penalise or place them under further strain. That is why I am calling for a Yes vote on May 24.
- Josepha Madigan is Minister for Culture, Heritage & the Gaeltacht