Social Welfare officials warn on failure to introduce State benefits for divorced people

State papers 1986: Department files review options in event of passing of divorce referendum in June

Labour Party leader Dick Spring speaking at a press conference to urge a Yes vote in the 1986 divorce referendum. Photograph: Jack McManus

Labour Party leader Dick Spring speaking at a press conference to urge a Yes vote in the 1986 divorce referendum. Photograph: Jack McManus

 

A failure to introduce State benefits to cover divorced people would ultimately give rise to the accusation that divorce was “only available to those who could afford it”, Department of Social Welfare officials warned.

A review of options for the reform of social-welfare schemes in the event of the passing of the 1986 divorce referendum is contained in the files of the department.

The referendum, announced by the government in April, took place on June 26th and was rejected by 63.5 per cent of those who voted, with a turnout of 60.8 per cent.

A review prepared for minister for social welfare Gemma Hussey said divorce would create a new category of persons in need who would have no “categorical” welfare scheme to cover them.

This would inevitably lead to the introduction of a new scheme to cater specifically for divorcees.

“Failure to introduce such a scheme would affect the numbers of divorces as the courts could not then be as easily satisfied that adequate and proper provision would be made for the maintenance of dependants. This would give rise to the accusation that divorce was only available to ‘those who could afford it’.”

The introduction of a scheme for divorcees would raise many other issues, the document said.

The level of payment made to divorcees would have to be determined relative to the degree of support provided to a married couple and yet this position would have to be reconciled with the view that the needs of a divorcee were no less than those of a deserted wife or widow.

A note to the minister on May 15th said the extent of the proposed remedial action to be taken could not be accurately estimated or undertaken without reference to the Commission on Social Welfare, which at that stage had not yet reported to the government.

Unmarried allowance

The files also contain an analysis in August of a proposal to extend the unmarried mother

’s allowance scheme to divorced women. Officials said certain issues would have to be addressed, such as whether there was still a case “in today’s society” for the payment of a higher level of support to “single mothers” in light of their “special circumstances”.

“If it is decided that there is not, then the needs of divorced women, now dependent on unemployment assistance or supplementary welfare, are not greater than the needs of others dependent on these same schemes for financial support.”

A copy of remarks made by Hussey to a Fine Gael meeting on divorce in Drogheda on June 10th said she believed the introduction of a fault-based divorce jurisdiction would be a “step backwards in the evolution of family law in Ireland”.

“I do not believe that it is socially or legally desirable to introduce a fault-based divorce system which compels one party to ransack the history of the marriage for damaging evidence against the other.”

Compassion v fear

The files also contain a speech by minister for labour Ruairí Quinn at a public meeting on divorce in Drogheda on June 13th. Quinn told the meeting the choice facing the people in the referendum was “a choice between compassion and fear”.

He said that contrary to what had been suggested by representatives of the anti-divorce lobby, no spouse who was dependent on social welfare would suffer any disadvantage either financially or in terms of their social-welfare rights.

“As legislators, we cannot continue to ignore the problem of marital breakdown and its effects,” he said.

He said we could not afford “any political fudge” about the practical and necessary legal mechanisms which would enable men and women in this situation to rebuild their lives with dignity.