Divorce vote: ‘We’re changing the Constitution that people died for’

Referendum Commission chair told voters expect polls to be rerun until desired result comes

People in Ireland do not vote because when the Government gets an answer it does not want, it makes people vote again, the chair of the Referendum Commission was told during a meeting in Dublin on Tuesday.

Another speaker told a meeting addressed by Ms Justice Tara Burns that too much was being taken out of the Constitution by way of referendums.

“We’re changing the Constitution that people died for,” the man said.

The points were made during a lively debate at the Adult Learning Centre on Mountjoy Square in Dublin 1, where Ms Justice Burns urged those in attendance to take an interest in the proposal to change the Constitutional provisions on divorce in the referendum on May 24th, and to be sure to vote.

Dublin Central produced the lowest turnout in the last two referendums and Ms Justice Burns said she was there to encourage people to vote “and to go out in the community and encourage others to vote too.”

The Constitution cannot be changed by anybody except the people, she said.

“It’s you and you alone that have the right.”

Living apart

Ms Justice Burns explained that one part of the prosposed change was that a provision that people had to be living apart for at least four of the past five years before they could apply for a divorce, would be removed.

If the change is approved, then it would be up to the Oireactas to legislate for the amount of time people would have to be living apart prior to applying for a divorce. The Government has said it will legislate for a two-year minimum if the Constitutional provision on the four-year minimum is removed.

A second part of the proposed change would remove from the Constitution a provision concerning the recognition of foreign divorces, and again leave the matter entirely up to the Oireachtas.

When Ms Justice Burns was finished her brief address, a lively question and answer session ensued involving the thirty or more men and women gathered in the room.

A man said that in the past when people had voted one way in a referendum “it was brought back to a vote again because the result didn’t suit them”.

Ms Justice Burns said the second time the people voted a different way, but it was still the people who decided on the change.


“People voted no, and then it got switched, so what’s the point in voting?” the man said. “That’s why people don’t vote.”

However, Ms Justice Burns said it was not “they” who switched but rather “the people” who voted differently the second time.

“There is no trick here,” she added.

Ireland held second referendum polls on the Nice and Lisbon treaties after the public had originally voted to the reject the EU proposals.

Some speakers said that the UK might be better off if the people there were allowed a second vote on Brexit. However, one person said that the people had already spoken on that subject. “That’s democracy,” he said.

Another man said that if the people voted to get rid of the minimum separation rule from the Constitution, a future government could introduce a law different to the one this Government is proposing.

One speaker asked who proposed making changes to the Constitution and another said, at the start of the meeting, that she could not understand why the change to the minimum separation rule would not have immediate effect, if there was a Yes vote on May 24th. She later said she now understood that a new law would have to be introduced.

‘Mortal sin’

A man said it was only because religion had lost its power in Ireland, that a referendum on divorce was taking place.

“When we were growing up, divorce was a mortal sin,” he said. “People went through hell being battered at home because they believed that divorce was a sin.”

In response to the point that too many changes to the Constitution were taking place, a man responded: “If Ireland changes, then the Constitution has to change. This Ireland is completely different to Ireland when the Constitution was written.”

He added: “We’re not trying to take down the people of 1916, or anything like that.”

Ms Justice Burns said that a proposal to change the Constitution to introduce divorce was rejected in 1986. The 1995 referendum to introduce divorce was passed by a slim majority.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent