Exorcising the ghost of the Catholic right

Today's vote is the culmination of a long battle that has been dubbed a 'moral civil war'
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The Independent Online
On a summer's day on 26 June 1986, Ireland's liberal forces took one of the biggest electoral hammerings imaginable. As part of his"constitutional crusade" aimed at softening Northern Ireland Unionists' antipathy to their supposedly "Rome-ruled" neighbours in the south, the then Taoiseach, Dr Garret Fitzgerald, head of the ruling Fine Gael-Labour coalition, wandered ill-prepared into a divorce referendum. By the time votes were counted, his political programme and, ultimately, his government, were in tatters.

Fitzgerald was lured into confident mood bypolls in April 1986 which indicated that 57 per cent favoured the reintroduction of civil divorce with just 36 per cent against. It seemed an ideal moment to eradicate the fundamentalist nightmare of 1983, when the lay Catholic right had cornered him into holding a referendum on whether to make abortion constitutionally illegal. Months of public acrimony before and after the vote, dubbed "Ireland's moral civil war" by the press, revived entrenched Catholic intolerance of minority views.

In 1986, Fitzgerald found the same pro-Vatican right just as formidable It spread fears of a society facing imminent disintegration. Women were warned of husbands ready to abscond if divorce arrived. Rural farmers were told that hard-earned land could suddenly be divided or sold at the behest of family law courts.

Many in Fitzgerald's own party were alarmed by an absence of legal provision for "first" families, and in the end the electorate rejected divorce by a convincing 63 to 36 per cent. The clergy had mobilised deep-seated religious allegiances, reinforced by assertions that divorce would be a socially and economically retrograde step.

The divorce ban had been inserted by Eamon de Valera, the Fianna Fail Taoiseach, into his 1937 constitution. Its overtly Catholic character was shown by another clause confirming the "special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens". In a gesture to Northern Irish Protestants, this was dropped in 1972. But to the dismay of liberals, the divorce ban remained.

Since 1989, when Fianna Fail linked up first with the urban liberal Progressive Democrats, and from 1992 to 1994 with Labour, successive governments promised new divorce moves, driven by grassroots pressure to relieve the plight of the 80,000 separated people in new relationships who were unable to remarry. Delays followed while a whole raft of legislation was put in place to close the loopholes exposed by the 1986 defeat. Eighteen pieces of legislation are now in place, from the Judicial Separation Act 1989, covering property division and succession rights, to measures covering social welfare and pension entitlements.

To block accusations that the government was seeking to undermine Irish marriage with "Hollywood" or "quickie" divorces, the law reform minister Mervyn Taylor's 1995 divorce proposal requires couples to show that they have lived apart for four of the past five years, and that there is no chance of reconciliation. If the referendum is passed, courts may only grant a divorce if adequate provision is made for dependent spouses and children. To defuse fears that the Dail could replace restrictive divorce with an instant version, these terms are to be cast in stone by inserting them into the constitution.

Opposition lawyers say that the proposals will allow divorce to couples who claim to be "living apart" while still sharing the same house.

John Bruton's coalition announced this month's referendum, buoyed by strong opinion polls and with one eye on Northern Ireland. Mr Bruton is urging Catholic voters to accommodate minority viewpoints. He is aware that failure will make it all the harder to get Northern Unionists to tolerate minority nationalist attitudes on their side.

Mr Bruton tried to avoid a head-on church vs state row without fudging his "render unto Caesar" beliefs. He has, nevertheless, tartly urged the Irish Catholic bishops to "devote their attention to persuading individuals to follow their teaching of their own free will".

"With large parts of the education and health services for long under control of Catholic orders, separation of church and state in Ireland has often existed more in theory than practice," he says. "Unlike in other EU countries, state and religious marriages are barely differentiated."

Three to four hundred Irish Catholic Church annulments are granted each year, permitting many, but not all, couples to remarry. In the eyes of the state, which has a much narrower nullity law and no divorce, these are bigamous marriages. In practice, the state does not prosecute an arrangement which many argue devalues the concept of law itself. Church critics argue that the procedure is grossly unfair to children of first marriages, who, they say, are made to feel their parents' marriages never existed.

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