Divorce and marriage equality referendums: ‘Family reality, not ideology, swayed voters’

People’s “lived experience” of family life and willingness to talk about it trumped all the arguments against change during both the divorce and marriage equality referendums, a family law expert has claimed.

Dr Carol Coulter, director of the Child Care Law Reporting Project, told the Merriman Summer School in Ennis the vision of the ideal family put forward by those who opposed change to the status quo, was increasingly out of step with the reality of many Irish families.

Dr Coulter said that ideal had been rooted in Catholic social teaching on the family and was promoted by lay Catholic organisations.

She said arguments put forward in both referendums warned divorce would entail husbands abandoning their middle-aged wives for someone more attractive.

However, she said after the introduction of divorce, that scenario failed to materialise in epidemic proportions and, in fact the majority of those seeking judicial separations, often the first step towards divorce, were women.

“What was striking about these statements was the assumption of a middle-class lifestyle as the norm for the whole of Irish society, a life-style in which a man earned enough to own a house and support a non-working wife and children, one in which unemployment and rented accommodation did not feature,” she said.

“Indeed, one of the features of most debates about the nature of the Irish family over the past number of constitutional referendums has been the invisibility of poverty and its impact on family life.”

Dr Coulter told the summer school the image of Irish family has never reflected its more complex reality. She said economic and social circumstances have always had at least as great an impact on family life as religion or ideology despite, what she said, was a sustained attempt in Ireland to uphold a narrow vision of the family.

“As we know that attempt included punitive policies, promoted by the Church and imposed by the State, directed towards unmarried mothers and others seen to transgress the approved norm,” she said. “So the context in which the recent marriage referendum took place was one where there were few families who had not experienced lone parenthood, co-habitation, marriage breakdown, sometimes involving re-marriage, or having a child or a sibling who was gay.

“The invocation by the No campaigners of an essentialist family form, where marriage was a precursor to having children and childless marriages did not exist, where single parent families were a regrettable exception, did not correspond to the lived reality of many people’s lives.”

She said another feature of the recent campaign was the extent to which a “different, inclusive version” of the family, with love rather than duty at its core, was invoked by those promoting change.

“Former president Mary McAleese was just one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of parents and grandparents who walked the roads and streets of Ireland appealing to voters to include their children and grandchildren in the Irish definition of the family. This reality, rather than ideology, won the day.”

RELATED: Divorce in Ireland 20 years on: What has actually happened?

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