The Irish Times view on the divorce referendum: No room for complacency

Our provisions for divorce are, by international standards, extremely restrictive

Culture minister Josepha Madigan. Those backing a Yes vote shouldn’t be complacent. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Culture minister Josepha Madigan. Those backing a Yes vote shouldn’t be complacent. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

The institution of marriage in Ireland is in pretty good health. It remains the most popular choice – albeit one made later in life than it used to be – for couples who wish to commit to each other and, in most cases, start a family. The CSO reports there were more than 22,000 weddings in Ireland in 2017, and while church weddings remain the most popular choice, the increasing popularity of civil weddings, celebrated in a variety of settings and venues, show that the marriage ceremony remains an important staging point for many couples even as our society becomes less religious. Meanwhile, our divorce rate is the lowest in Europe.

And while there may be legitimate concerns that there is an emerging gap between the middle class, where marriage rates are higher, and unskilled workers, whose rates of divorce are higher, overall the institution remains strong, stable and popular. It has survived – and flourished – despite the warnings during the divorce referendum in 1995 and the same sex marriage referendum in 2015 that these constitutional changes would undermine and hollow out the place of marriage in society and in people’s lives.

Consistent with the move towards greater personal, social and sexual freedom in Ireland, the doom-filled prophecies of those opposed to the liberalising reforms have not come to pass. Things have turned out OK.

On May 24th, voters will be asked to approve another constitutional change relating to marriage. Our provisions for divorce are, by international standards, extremely restrictive. They were inserted in the Constitution in 1995 to reassure voters nervous about the abolition of the constitutional ban. As it stands, under the Constitution, a couple must have lived apart for four of the previous five years before their marriage can be dissolved. In practice, this forces people who wish to divorce to remain married for much longer than many would prefer. It also means that many pursue a judicial separation years before getting divorced – vastly increasing the financial costs of dealing with marriage breakdown.

The proposed amendment proposes to remove the restrictions from the Constitution and leave these matters to the Oireachtas to regulate. It is a sensible and proportionate change. It does not threaten or undermine marriage. It simply makes life easier for people in a difficult situation.

So far at least there appears to be little if any organised opposition to the change. However, the Government, the political parties and the civil society groups who back a Yes vote in the referendum should not be complacent: the history of referendums in Ireland should be warning enough that no campaign is a foregone conclusion.

If political actors, and ordinary voters, want the change to be approved, they must seek and win votes in its favour.

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