Against the tide of change

The Irish were expected to vote for divorce, so why are they changing their minds? By Fintan O'Toole
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The Independent Online
TEN days ago, Bishop Thomas Flynn, the spokesman for the Irish Roman Catholic hierarchy, issued a warning to those preparing to vote in this Friday's referendum on the introduction of divorce in Ireland. Catholics should be aware, he said, that if they were to divorce and remarry they would no longer be entitled to any of the church's sacraments.

These words carried the same air of authority, and the same implicit threat of hell-fire and damnation, that used to characterise the pronouncements of senior churchmen in Ireland in the Fifties and Sixties. But they drew a response that did not belong to that era.

The bishop was criticised on television by a leading academic lawyer, Professor William Binchy, who declared that the tone of his remarks was badly out of keeping with the "sympathy, support and solidarity with people living their lives" that Catholics expected from their church.

Irish intellectuals have been challenging the church for many years, but this was something different, for Professor Binchy is not an anti- clerical liberal, but a veteran campaigner against divorce and abortion. It says much about the decline in the authority of the church in Ireland that even Catholic conservatives such as Professor Binchy are embarrassed by the bishops and feel a need to keep them at a distance. Polls suggest that even among those who intend to vote against divorce, only about 15 per cent say that their decision is influenced by the Catholic hierarchy.

On the face of it, such disagreements between the church and lay conservatives should be no more than a sideshow, and a vote on Friday in favour of divorce should be a foregone conclusion. Every one of the main political parties is in favour of amending the constitution to make divorce possible, and for years opinion polls have consistently suggested that about 60 per cent of the population agrees.

Although a similar proposition was heavily defeated in a referendum only nine years ago, much has changed since. A woman, Mary Robinson - a left-wing liberal - has become President and remains easily the most popular politician in the country. The moral authority of the church has been eroded, first by the scandalous case of Bishop Eamonn Casey and then, more gravely, by a torrent of child-abuse cases.

The abuse scandals are doubly traumatic for believing Catholics.They have undermined the feelings of intimacy and trust between priests and people that used to be the church's greatest strength. They have also revealed a shocking degree of ignorance, incompetence and moral weakness on the part of bishops who failed to protect children from known abusers within the ranks of the church.

All of this may suggest that divorce will be accepted by a wide margin but the indications are that the vote will be close. There is even a real possibility that divorce will be rejected. The most recent poll, the results of which were released on Friday, shows that support for divorce has dropped from 62 per cent to 47 per cent, with 39 per cent against and 14 per cent undecided. A repeat of 1986, when early poll figures showing a majority for divorce were gradually reversed as the vote got closer seems increasingly likely.

Yet even a narrow defeat for divorce this time would indicate a substantial change in attitudes, given that the 1986 amendment was lost by a majority of two to one. More profoundly, however, it needs to be remembered that most Catholics - still 92 per cent of the population - experience the loss of authority of their bishops not as a liberation but as a trauma.

Precisely because Ireland has been changing so rapidly, the church represented for many people the last bastion of stability and security. Certainly nothing else has been stable. Nationalism, the dominant political ideology, was eroded by the campaign of violence carried out by the IRA in its name. Party politics, dominated for decades by the two rival conservative parties that emerged out of the civil war of the 1920s, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, has fragmented. Since the last general election in 1992, four parties have been in power, in two coalition governments. The unpredictability of politics was symbolised this time last year by the sudden, cataclysmic fall of the Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, just as he was enjoying international acclaim for his role in the peace process.

The same kind of change has happened at the level of everyday life. It is easy to forget that only 25 years ago, the Republic was still a country where a majority of the population lived in the countryside. Only half of the 14- to 19-year-olds were in full-time education. Priests and nuns still provided a very high proportion of teachers and nurses, and twice as many people entered the priesthood or religious orders as do now. Almost all married women were housewives, partly because women in public-service jobs were obliged to resign when they got married. Contraceptives were illegal until 1979, and fertility rates were consequently much higher than anywhere else in the developed world.

All of this has changed beyond recognition. The Republic is now a largely urban society - the number of farmers has dropped dramatically since Ireland joined the European Union. The general level of education has improved rapidly, and Ireland now has, for instance, the highest proportion of computer-science graduates anywhere outside the United States. The old family model in which a stay-at-home mother raised an average of five children has collapsed. In 1991, for the first time ever, fertility in the Republic fell to a level where births are just replacing deaths.

The evidence suggests that marital breakdown in Northern Ireland and in the Republic happens at about the same rate, even though there is divorce in the North and not in the South. The Irish abortion rate is as high as the Dutch, even though there is no abortion in Ireland; almost all Irish abortions are performed in England. Nearly 20 per cent of births now occur outside marriage. The sexual and social mores of the Republic, in other words, are now broadly in line with western European norms.

Social change as rapid and as profound as this has had inevitable consequences for political and moral attitudes. Those consequences are reflected in events like the election of President Robinson, or in the passage in 1993 of homosexuality laws considerably more liberal than those in Britain. But it may be that one of the things that made it possible for Irish people to cope so well with all the change was, paradoxically, the reassuring presence of the church as a guarantor of some kind of underlying continuity. If God was still in his heaven, things must be all right with the world, even if most things had become unstable and unpredictable.

Now that even the church is breaking down, Catholics are, as Bishop Willie Walsh wrote in the Irish Times recently, "hurt, sad, angered, frustrated, fearful and insecure". The anger, provoked by the paedophile scandals, may be directed largely at the bishops themselves, but fear and insecurity seldom have the effect of encouraging people to embrace change. With the state in flux and the church in crisis, the family seems to many people to be the only institution that can offer a refuge from uncertainty.

There is, of course, no reason to believe that voting against divorce would do anything to keep families together or to change the fact that private life in Ireland is now more or less the same as it is everywhere else. The rate of marital breakdown in the Republic has doubled since the divorce was last rejected in 1986. But there is still a reluctance among many to accept that the family could be just as vulnerable to impermanence as political and religious institutions have proven to be. When everything else appears temporary and contingent, there is a deep desire to pretend that family life is insulated against the winds of change.

Even if Friday's vote goes against divorce, therefore, it would be wrong to believe that the clock has been turned back or that the church is back in charge. On the contrary, it is precisely because nobody believes that the larger process of political and social change in Ireland can be reversed or even halted that the symbolism of divorce has taken on such importance. It is because the old order is falling apart that the image of people sticking together, come what may, has such a powerful allure.

Fintan O'Toole is a columnist with the 'Irish Times'

Separation Row: Real Life, p11