November 27th 1995: 'High Noon' on divorce poll result day


BACK PAGES:Removing the constitutional ban on divorce took two referendums almost 10 years apart, and was passed by the slenderest of majorities, 9,110 votes of the 1,628,572 valid votes cast, in 1995, writes JOE JOYCE

Deaglán de Bréadún was at the count in the RDS.

IT WAS the night they drove old Dixie down. The result was so close you couldn’t slip a razor blade between the figures. But a win is a win is a win.

All day, the pro-divorce majority tightened like a noose. At 2.30 p.m. the rumour went around the RDS that the referendum would pass by 28,000 votes. An hour later the estimates were down to 12,000. In the end it got through by a whisker, which became, after the recount, a whisker plus a hair.

On this issue at any rate, the proponents of traditional Catholic Ireland saw their dreams turn to dust. Rory O’Hanlon complained in interviews about the President’s interventions and the unfairness of the media.

Des Hanafin was more circumspect. A politician of the old school, he still managed to crack a smile in defeat. But it must have been a black, bitter day for the “Pope” of Thurles.

It was a Popular Front of the middle and working classes which saw off the divorce ban. “Darndale went wild for Yes,” crowed a jubilant Labour activist.

It was the same in Greensdale, in Roddy Doyle country. Dublin Central, Bertie Ahern’s constituency, also showed a big swing for divorce.

Young anti-divorce activists caused a slight stir when they rose in unison at midday for the Angelus: but it was High Noon at the counting tables. Pro-divorce campaigners at a nearby table sat coiled like springs all day, unwilling to celebrate until they were sure.

Úna Bean Mhic Mhathúna of the No Divorce Campaign was less than pleased when questioned by The Irish Times about the sources of its funds, especially those “Hello divorce, goodbye Daddy” billboards. It was a matter for the auditor: she herself had received no money.

She rebuked a pro-divorce campaigner who butted in: “Shaddup you, I got nothing from the blasted Human Life International.” A crowd gathered but, after a few exchanges with them about the private lives of various Government ministers, she stormed off with the memorable line: “G’way, ye wife-swapping sodomites!”

The noose was tight but not tight enough. The Houdini Amendment was slipping through.

Muintir na hÉireann was talking about a court challenge: a sure sign the amendment was going to win. The normally reticent Mervyn Taylor was grinning broadly.

Then it was all over. “Olé! Olé! Olé!” chanted the pro-divorce people, at last giving way to emotion. “Hello divorce, bye-bye Binchy,” said one of them, in a reference to their most formidable opponent.

“I think it’s a stride towards a better, more inclusive Ireland,” said Labour TD Derek McDowell. Fine Gael’s Frances Fitzgerald praised the voters’ verdict as “realistic and compassionate”.

Peter Scully of the No Divorce Campaign admitted he was “devastated”. If the nominally Catholic majority in Ireland really believed in their faith the referendum wouldn’t even have been held.

Mags O’Brien of the Divorce Action Group was delira and excita, as Gay Byrne would say.

An anti-divorce activist blamed it all on the bad weather in Connacht. The west wasn’t asleep: it just didn’t want to get its feet wet. “The rain bet us,” he lamented. “It came in the wrong places.”