Twenty years of divorce in Ireland - How have we fared?

On this day in 1997, divorce was legalised in Ireland. Jonathan deBurca Butler looks at how we’ve fared since

Twenty years ago today divorce came to Ireland. Two years previously, it had been passed in a referendum by just 1.7%. The margin of victory was slim, the societal shift enormous.

“It was another bit of the Church’s power being chipped away,” says Brian Whiteside of the Humanist Association of Ireland. “If we look back 40 years ago, homosexuality was outlawed, divorce was banned, contraception wasn’t allowed. These were all things that had been imposed by the Church and were things that should not really be in a modern democratic country, especially a republic. Divorce was another milestone on our journey towards a secular Ireland.”

It is a journey that Whiteside sees as incremental and ongoing. He points to the fact that in 1996, 6% of marriages were non-religious. Now, 20 years later it’s about a third and it’s rising all the time. He also points to census figures which suggest that the ‘non-religious’ category is the fastest growing demographic among Irish citizens.

“There’s been a huge shift in religious observance,” says Whiteside. “It seems that 20 odd years ago, everyone was either religious or they pretended to be religious and now there’s a more open honest approach to it all.”

The 1995 referendum was all the more remarkable when one considers that just nine years beforehand, 63% of voters had said no to a similar proposal. So what happened? Were there really that many people pretending, as Whiteside puts it, to be religious?

“That [Divorce ’95] was the point that liberal Ireland began to get the better of traditional Ireland,” says David Quinn, director of Catholic advocacy group the Iona Institute.

“Scandals had started to break and the Church had an immediate loss of authority because of them. It did of course take part in the debate but it had been badly undermined. So, even though the margin of victory was narrow, it was hugely symbolic moment.”

For historian Roy Foster, divorce was “a reality check for a society that had been living by double-think for too long”.” While he concedes that divorce and other societal changes were put into overdrive by the revelation of sex scandals, he sees another phenomenon as equally important.

“I think that the first cracks in the Church’s social as well as moral authority had been set in motion by the feminist movement from the early 1970s,” he says. “It comprehensively challenged the patriarchal pretensions of the hierarchy and their political yes-men.”

Foster, professor of Irish history at Hertford College Oxford, believes the divorce referendum set a snowball off down a hill.

Brian Whiteside of the Humanist Association of Ireland and David Quinn of Catholic pressure group, the Iona Institute.

“The fact that the fake truths of the anti-divorce lobby didn’t work helped prepare the way for other sacred cows to be taken on,” he says, “and for the moral authority of the Catholic Church to be queried.”

During the campaign much was made of the threat to family and society posed by divorce. There was a suggestion that when divorce came in the floodgates of marriage breakdown would open. At first glance the statistics suggest the numbers getting divorced in Ireland remain low, but as David Quinn points out, it’s worth looking at the state of marriage in the round.

“If you go back to 1986, 40,000 people were separated,” says Quinn. “By 2011 it’s basically a quarter of a million people [whose relationships have broken down between separation and divorce]. If you compare our divorce rates to France or Britain or Sweden that’s still quite low but it’s still a lot of people and it doesn’t include the affected children.

“But if you look at it our rate of co-habitation, it’s higher than the USA,” he continues, “and our birthrate outside of marriage is about 35%. So if you look at those figures, it suggests that people are beginning to pull back from marriage and there has been a retreat from marriage right across the Western world and that retreat needs to be looked not just in terms of divorce and separation rates.”

Quinn would like to see a debate around marriage and its future. For him and many others, marriage is about commitment and is central to the raising of children but he feels modern Ireland’s attitude to it is somewhat a la carte.

“When we brought in same sex marriage that was supposed to be a marker of how seriously we take marriage,” says Quinn. “But actually there aren’t that many people worrying about the general retreat from marriage that I’m talking about. If you look at the figures, 66% of professionals between 18 and 49 are married *. Thirty-two per cent of unskilled lower income people in the same age group are married with children. Why is it that higher income groups are getting married and people from more deprived areas are not getting married as much? And why is it that middle class people marry before having kids and that is not so prevalent in disadvantaged areas? And why are we not having a debate around that? That concerns me.”

“Relatively few of my friends are separated [or divorced],” says Newstalk presenter, Dr Ciara Kelly. “But I see with my children, more of their friends come from families whose parents might be separated. So there are changes but they’re slow. The scaremongering that was going on at the time hasn’t happened. There was no knee jerk reaction. That referendum was symbolic more than anything else. I think we’re still a relatively conservative society and that when we have children with someone, we look upon that person as being someone we want to spend the rest of lives with and there’s a lot in Irish society that supports the nuclear family.”

Does Kelly suggest Ireland is a better place to live in now than it was 20 years ago? “Sadly, I think Ireland was quite a judgemental society. As Olivia O’Leary said on the Late Late there was a culture of judgment and fear and I think we’ve moved away from that. We saw it in the Marriage Equality referendum.

“We are becoming a society that is allowing people to live their lives without us being too bothered about how they do that as long as they’re not hurting others. And that’s a society that’s much better to live in.”

Data taken from Mind the Gap, a study published by the Iona Institute last year



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