Irish vote on divorce heads for close finish

Church and state: Campaign to reform law on marriage falters as opposition grows in run-up to referendum
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The Independent Online


The Irish Republic's divorce referendum campaign is heading for a nail- biting last fortnight with an opinion poll yesterday showing support for its introduction down to just 52 per cent.

The poll in the Irish Times showed the pro-divorce vote has slumped six points in two weeks while the opposition has strengthened to 35 per cent, with "don't knows" up four points to 13 per cent. Voting takes place on 24 November.

In a campaign marked by the low profile of the Catholic clergy and scarce reference to Vatican dogma, opposition arguments have increasingly stressed the social and economic costs of divorce.

Divorce is banned under the 1937 constitution. The referendum asks people whether they wish to remove the bar and allow the right to remarry.

In the last attempt at reform, Garrett Fitzgerald's ill-prepared 1986 coalition campaign saw an early pro-divorce majority become a 63.5 per cent vote against. Then, Catholic orthodoxy was reinforced with a scare campaign warning of physical eviction of wives and children from family homes.

The present government campaign, which is backed by Irpounds 500,000-worth of publicity, at first seemed secure, with 69 per cent in May favouring the introduction of divorce.

That majority has been steadily eroded by a hard-hitting "No" campaign alleging "Divorce damages children", claiming it would cost an extra 10 per cent in tax, a suggestion dismissed by the government.

This appeal to the wallets of perhaps Europe's most heavily taxed workforce echoes the killer punch of 1986, when divorce was presented especially to rural voters as an insidious virus likely to break up family farms.

This year's more sophisticated arguments cite data claiming that growing divorce in Britain and the United States is directly linked to increased poverty. In a relatively muted government campaign, ministers reply that this is muddled thinking, arguing that the wider marital breakdown problems is the root problem.

Canvassing from the pulpit is now less overt. The clergy's influence is waning, undermined by recent scandals over clerical sex abuse. In a recent poll 75 per cent of respondents had "mixed, little or no confidence" in church leaders.

Traditionalist thinking lingers on in the explicit Anti-Divorce Campaign assertion that the 4 per cent of separated couples should not have access to remarriage to "protect" the first marriages of the 96 per cent of couples who have not.

Such "Catholic state for a Catholic people" sentimentsanger the minority Protestant Church of Ireland.

But divorce's leading opponents argue that allowing divorce will lead to a rise in marital breakdown that would not otherwise occur, as couples end strained marriages they could otherwise have repaired.

The Catholic bishops' only recent intervention dubbed the divorce proposal a "bad law" that threatened "serious moral, spiritual and social implications for generations".

The law reform minister, Mervyn Taylor, insists legislation since 1989 covering judicial separation and family home protection has closed holes that sank the Fitzgerald campaign. He says the issue now is simply the right to remarry, and voting "Yes" is merely offering "a second chance" to 80,000 separated citizens.