Divorce: the seven year itch

Colette Keane looks at the effects of divorce and also gets the views of Professor Patricia Casey, who was at the forefront of the debate.

THEY said daddies would leave. They said it would open the floodgates and 80,000 people would swamp the courts leaving a trail of broken homes in their wake. They said the country would become a place for "wife-swapping sodomites". But has it?

On February 27, 2004 it will be seven years since divorce officially became a legal option for the thousands of people whose marriages break down beyond repair. At first glance the dire consequences predicted by the anti-divorce lobby seem archaic, but have they come true?

In the dark days of the 1995 divorce referendum, held nine years after a decisive No vote to a similar referendum, the anti-divorce lobby used fear as the best tactic to keep liberal attitudes at bay. 'Hello Divorce, Goodbye Daddy' was one of its most famous posters. One of the slogans from Women's Aid was hijacked by Youth Against Divorce during the campaign: "He gave her flowers, chocolates and multiple bruising." YAD added: "Don't give him the right to remarry." Padraig Flynn said divorce would stalk the country like Frankenstein. Taxes would rise by 10% to help support broken families. The archbishop of Cashel warned that divorced people smoked and drank more than their married counterparts and were three times more likely to be involved in car crashes. Within a month of the campaign, support for the Yes vote fell by 9%. Bishop Thomas Flynn, the Hierarchy's spokesman, said remarriage after a divorce was "a state of public and permanent adultery" and people living in such unions "may not" receive the sacraments, including the last rites. He later backtracked as even dedicated No supporters baulked.

It was the closest referendum decision in the State's history with more than one million people motivated to have their say. The final result was 50.3% in favour of introducing divorce with 49.7% against. Just 9,114 votes in the difference. .

It was perhaps the then Taoiseach John Bruton who best summed up the reason behind the close vote "Everybody has a little bit of Yes in them and a little bit of No."

Analysis of the voting pattern revealed that women were split 50/30, 54% of men favoured it, 71% of widows were opposed while 77% of separated people supported it.

It was a terminally ill man in his 60s who was the first beneficiary of the new legislation. He made legal history when he was granted the first divorce since Brehon law on January 17, 1997 by High Court Judge Mr Justice Henry Barron a month before the official introduction of the legislation given his ill health.

The man lived in the Dublin area and wanted to marry the woman he had lived with for years before he died. The judge transferred the couple's three properties into the wife's name and one third of all of the man's remaining assets were divided equally between his three adult children.

Since then there has not been the deluge of divorces that many predicted, although the figures are still significant. While almost 100,000 people classed themselves as separated in Census 2002, it also revealed that only 35,059 people have actually got divorced. And 21,401 people had remarried after the dissolution of a previous marriage. Figures from the Court Service also show that an average of 3,700 people a year have been granted a divorce since 2000.

The number of separated people in Ireland has more than doubled between 1991 and 2002 to 98,779 and since divorce was made legal in 1997, the numbers of divorced people has more than trebled from 9,800 to 35,059. Last year the number of women seeking a divorce was almost double the number of men.

But counselling service Accord believes this has as much to do with the growing social pressures on couples and the family as access to divorce.

Director of Counselling with Accord John Farrelly said a study of 3,500 clients in 2002 found that marriage is under pressure because people are under pressure. The research found that criticisms, insults and failure to listen were the most common set of problems that led to marital difficulties, dissatisfaction with sharing of housework and childcare duties was the second most common problem while a volatile style or avoidance of conflict resolution rated third.

"It is not just the availability of divorce that is creating more marriage breakups. If anything, people are working harder to stay married, despite all the options open to them to leave. Divorce came in at a time when life pressures were growing. The balance of power in the home has changed, life has got so much busier and people want more as individuals," Mr Farrelly said.

Figures from Accord, which provided more than 50,000 hours of counselling to nearly 9,000 clients over the last two years, also show that half of their clients have been married for an average of 12 years and are aged between 30 and 40.

When a couple do decide to split, they often turn to the Family Mediation Services to help them agree on the division of money, property, and access to children. The service's Dublin area co-ordinator Polly Phillimore says that while the level of communication between couples can be poor, the whole point is that they are making an agreement between them, particularly about access to children, rather than having a judge decide what's best for their family.

The numbers using the centre have increased every year. It started with one centre in 1986 and now has 14 nationwide, with another two due later this year. In 1997, 484 couples used the service. Last year, 1,403 couples used the service a 190% increase.

"Wanting to get married again is probably a big motivator to get divorced. Others just like to have everything settled legally," Ms Phillimore said. "Couples can come to us at any stage of the separation process to help them sort out issues like accommodation, access to children or money and can then go to a solicitor to have that agreement made legally binding."

People have to be separated for four of the previous five years to qualify for a divorce. If people have a straightforward divorce, it costs on average of 5,000. If there is any contested issue, the costs escalate. More and more people are turning to the Legal Aid Board to get their judicial separation and divorces as its director Frank Brady can testify: "We have an average of 1,000 divorce cases a year, which is a about a third of all divorces granted, and between 800 to 1,000 judicial separations."

Demand is so high that there is an average of 12 months waiting list in some of the larger centres. Mr Brady says the Board simply does not have enough resources to meet demand.

"When divorce was legalised we had 1,200 people on our waiting lists. It took an average of 12 months for those people to get into the system so that's why there was a slow build up in the divorce numbers. Also people were waiting to see what would happen.

"There's an average of 3,700 cases granted a year now and there is no reason to see why that would change dramatically in the future. Given the number of cases, we are finding it hard to cope with the demand. We don't have the resources," he said.

It seems some of the dire warnings have come true. Daddies have left. More than 35,000 people have gone to the courts for a divorce already and there is a steady stream of couples looking for one. Other things have changed as well for the better. People are marrying later, waiting to be sure they have met the right person. More people are attending counselling, and would be willing to attend counselling if their marriage hit a bad patch. More people are accessing support groups and services to ensure that their children will suffer as little as possible during a separation or divorce. It will take longer than seven years to find out whether all of these changes balance each out.

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