LEADING ARTICLE:Ireland must vote for the future

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Eamon de Valera, the towering figure who wrote Ireland's constitutional ban on divorce in 1937, would barely recognise his country today. In only a couple of generations, this land of green fields has become a largely urban society. The Roman Catholic bishops, once the nation's authoritative moral force, are beset by scandals. The birth rate has fallen below replacement level. And the territorial ambitions of Irish nationalism have been discredited by 25 years of IRA violence. The old order is dissolving.

The Irish Republic is a young and dynamic society which now sees itself as European. Old notions of Irishness based on Roman Catholicism, republicanism and twee romanticism are being rethought. It has an increasingly successful economy and a left-wing, feminist President. The country frequently captures the international limelight, be it with poetry (Seamus Heaney is the Nobel Laureate), its football (in the World Cup) or its singing (an embarrassing number of Eurovision victories).

The next step in modernisation comes today when the republic holds a referendum on the introduction of divorce. The need for such a change looks obvious. Most people know someone whose marriage has fallen apart but who cannot remarry within the law. The evidence suggests that marital breakdown is just as prevalent in the republic as north of the border, where divorce is legal. The leaders of the major political parties support the change. Opposition from the weakened Roman Catholic hierarchy has been more muted than in the past.

Yet, curiously, the result could go either way today. The reason is fear. People are afraid that change is happening too fast, that Ireland may lose its sense of self, that it will become just another Western European country.

The divorce debate has become the focus of concern about what sort of place Ireland is to become. There is a fear that divorce will undermine the family, a source of stability, support and reassurance in turbulent times. People also worry about land. They are concerned that a divorce law will lead to the break-up of farms between first and second families. The land issue strikes a chord with many people. Loss of land is associated historically with the grinding poverty of earlier centuries. Culturally, a farmer is regarded as having only stewardship over property, which must be passed on intact, hopefully improved, to descendants. To give it up after an expensive divorce is a nightmarish prospect.

These problems have been exaggerated. The proposed rules of divorce are not easy: a couple would have to demonstrate that they had been separated for at least four of the previous five years and show that there was no chance of a reconciliation. This is not the type of change that would push a couple into the divorce courts: it only addresses relationships that have demonstrably broken down. As for property, the proposals confer no greater rights on second families than they already enjoy.

In short, today's proposal is merely asking citizens in the republic to bring existing social realities within the law. The danger is, however, that a majority feel more threatened than invigorated by the prospects of the modern world and will vote instead for the comforting nostalgia that de Valera enshrined in his Constitution of 1937.

That would be a mistake. It is time to bury de Valera and vote for the future.

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