Catholics could challenge divorce decision

Irish referendum: Wafer-thin majority leaves ministers open to attack by party angered at public funding for 'Yes' campaign
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The Independent Online
ALAN MURDOCH

Dublin

Traditionalist Catholic campaigners will today consider launching an Irish High Court challenge to the result of the referendum which ended the Republic's 58-year-old ban on divorce by a wafer-thin margin of 0.55 per cent.

Ben Kinsella, vice-president of the fringe party Muintir na hEireann (People of Ireland's Party) said it was taking legal advice on a court challenge, and would discuss this possibility today with other groups strongly opposed to the introduction of civil divorce.

The party's objections to the result are based on the Government's use of public funds to support its "Yes" campaign. This was ruled unconstitutional 10 days ago by the Supreme Court.

The principal Anti-Divorce Campaign said it would consider a challenge, permitted up to seven days after polling, after formal publication of results tomorrow. But the social welfare minister Proinsias de Rossa insisted the Government had acted correctly given its understanding of the law when the spending was committed, a decision earlier approved by a vote of the Dail.

But some anti-divorce campaigners maintained Government pro-divorce literature was being delivered to households even after this had been blocked by the Supreme Court ruling.

A recount late on Saturday marginally increased the "Yes" majority for limited no-fault divorce which was 9,114 votes out of 1.63 million. It represented a 15.01 per cent swing towards the "Yes" vote since the last divorce poll in 1986.

The referendum revealed a country split down the middle. The greater Dublin area, home to a third of the population, voted strongly in favour, narrowly cancelling out majorities against divorce in southern and western regions of Munster and Connacht-Ulster.

Anti-divorce majorities in many rural areas were sharply lower than in 1986. In addition many urban working class areas, notably in Dublin and Cork, voted strongly for divorce for the first time.

In these areas declining Catholic Church influence and high rates of marital breakdown have been most obvious. National figures show births outside marriage have more than doubled in 10 years to just over 20 per cent.

The Government immediately recognised the implications of the division shown by the result. The law reform minister Mervyn Taylor said ministers would move to heal wounds exposed by a rancorous campaign: "I want to stress that this Government will support the family through mediation, counselling and welfare services and legal aid in every way possible."

Divorce itself will not become available in family law courts until next year. The specific terms approved by the referendum will be inserted in the constitution, a move devised to win all-party support for divorce.

Those seeking divorce must show they have been living apart for four of five preceding years, and demonstrate that existing "first family" dependents will be adequately provided for before a divorce may be granted.

For the Catholic Church the result means a substantial public rejection of its hitherto implacable opposition to divorce. The result may have been influenced by an apparently unsympathetic attitude. One senior bishop sparked public anger by warning that divorced and remarried people would not be entitled to receive the sacraments.

Government relief was undisguised at a victory which had seemed unlikely a week ago. Ministers had repeatedly warned a "No" vote would send unhelpful signals to Ulster Unionists by implying an unwillingness to accommodate minorities at a highly sensitive moment in the peace process.

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