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Family referendum: I’m voting No because I will not be hypocritical about marriage

Advocating for marriage or even stable, two-parent families is seen as mean-spirited, judgmental and meddlesome, but ignoring the evidence helps no-one

Before the announcement of the upcoming referendums, searching for the word “durable” on the Irish Times website mostly led to headlines about US sales of durable goods. However, two headlines using “durable” feature Alvin Stardust and Neil Diamond. The artists who brought us My Coo Ca Choo and You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Any More (Stardust and Diamond, respectively) happen to have been married three times, so I guess it must be the durability of their appeal rather than their relationships.

In Diamond’s country, the US, it is considered a great advance that the divorce rate has stabilised at about 33 per cent for the first 10 years of marriage. As for the UK, Stardust’s home country, the rates of marriage have dropped so precipitously that one marriage and family research think-tank believes that marriage will have virtually disappeared by 2062.

In Ireland, we are getting married later, and at much lower rates, than in the 1970s.

Greater diversity of family form is indisputable, but those few words – “other durable relationships” – that we are proposing to insert into the Article where the State currently recognises and protects the family unit are a disaster waiting to happen.


Brad Wilcox, veteran US marriage and family researcher, summarises the problem in a recent article in the Atlantic, The Awfulness of Elite Hypocrisy on Marriage. His thesis is simple. The higher the income and education level that you have, the more likely you are to be in a stable marriage, with all the well-researched benefits that brings.

Eighty per cent of his University of Virginia students come from intact families with married parents, and 97 per cent hope to follow a traditional trajectory of finishing their education, working full-time, marrying, and then having children. Yet they and elite commentators publicly discount or deny the value of stable, married families. As Wilcox says, they “talk left but walk right”. In a similar vein, Brookings economist, Melissa Kearney, recently published her book, The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind.

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Kearney was warned against publishing it even though it is good, solid, economic research. Advocating for marriage or even stable, two-parent families, is seen as mean-spirited, judgmental, meddlesome, and very bad for your career. She does not really care. She believes that ignoring the 30-plus years of evidence that marriage benefits couples, families and society, and that cohabitation is, on average, much less stable, helps no one.

The Iona Institute (of which I am a patron) published research in 2019 showing that unskilled workers are only half as likely as professionals to be married in the Republic – 32 per cent compared to 66 per cent. The divorce and separation figures are even more stark – 18.1 per cent and 6.1 per cent respectively – for unskilled and professional workers. So, in Ireland, are we also “talking left and walking right”? Indisputably.

It is vital to value and offer State support to all families, especially those most in need, and to acknowledge the often heroic efforts people make to give their children the best chance in life. But denying the reality that cohabitation is much less stable in the aggregate for children, or that lone parenthood often involves a much harder path for both the parent and the children, helps no one.

There is so much the State could do to support marriage, from providing affordable homes to subsidising pre-marriage education, but instead, it is giving us an ill-thought out constitutional amendment. A recent, groundbreaking case involved John O’Meara, who after the death of his partner of 17 years, was initially refused a widower’s pension. Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell found that it was possible to award O’Meara the pension on the grounds of equality of treatment of children and parents, without having to redefine the understanding of family in Article 41.

Chief Justice O’Donnell is not a fan of the current Article 41, seeming to think that it is a legacy of outdated Catholic thinking, despite the mountain of research on the positive benefits of marriage summarised by people like Kearney.

But he also says “it is difficult to describe at what point, and by reference to what characteristics, should a non-marital family be recognised as an Article 41 family” or whether it “could or should be confined to cases of relatively lengthy and stable couple pairing arrangements like that of the O’Mearas”.

The proposed wording manages to downplay the central stabilising role of marriage, which most people still aspire to, and also undermines the choice of those who actively reject marriage. As Chief Justice O’Donnell says, some people simply do not want to marry for various reasons, including that they just don’t want the State involved in a personal, intimate relationship. He suggests that the State should respect such choices. If the new clause sets up a kind of equivalence between marriage and other durable relationships, the choice disappears.

Defining a durable relationship is a legal minefield. We should vote No.