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Old Values Challenged : Divorce: Irish Split by Bid to Remove Ban

Times Staff Writer

A move is afoot to allow divorce in Ireland, and Bernadette Bonar thinks it’s part of a Communist plot to undermine Irish society.

In the heated national debate about lifting the 49-year ban on divorce, she has many influential allies. The Archbishop of Dublin has called the divorce proposal a plague and likened its impact to the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Michael Woods of the opposition Fianna Fail party has suggested that it would become “a constitutional Frankenstein that might sleep for a time but then rise and stalk the land.”

People campaigning against the proposed change see it as not only a direct threat to the fabric of Irish society but a test of whether Ireland can go on being one of the last custodians of traditional Christian values.

‘Permissive Way of Life’

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“If we can hold our position here, the whole world might turn away from the permissive way of life,” said Bonar, a 53-year-old pharmacist and a leader of the Anti-Divorce Campaign.

On Thursday, the Irish will decide the issue in a national referendum. If the ban on divorce is lifted, it will make Malta the only country in Europe without divorce.

The furor over divorce is Ireland’s third national collision with 20th-Century morality in three years. In 1983, after heated debate, a ban on abortion was written into the constitution. Last year, after equally heated debate, non-prescription contraceptives were legalized.

The two confrontations, followed so closely by the uproar over divorce, prompted the Times of London to describe Garret FitzGerald’s four years as prime minister as seeming “at times like a long-running serial on the question of the Irish and sex.”

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Change Since 1950s

All this reflects the social change that has taken place in Ireland since the 1950s, change that has brought people off the land and into the cities, eroded the influence of the powerful Roman Catholic Church and challenged homespun values.

And while previous confrontations were bitter and divisive, the divorce question strikes at the very core of a culture that emphasizes a sense of family. The divorce ban was written into Ireland’s 1937 constitution, a conservative document drafted mainly by independence leader Eamon de Valera that emphasized the importance of family and the Catholic influence in Irish society.

Lifting the ban on divorce “is an issue that has emotion, rationality and immediacy,” Peter Prendergast, a close aide to Prime Minister FitzGerald, said the other day. “The Irish love this kind of a tussle.”

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It has divided both the people and the government. Two of FitzGerald’s Cabinet ministers have said publicly that they will vote against the proposal.

One of the few points on which all agree is that the stresses of modern life have caused an alarming increase in the number of broken marriages here. Some studies show that one in every 20 Irish marriages fails, a figure small by international standards but a quantum change here. Barely a generation ago, the rate was too insignificant to measure.

“We are all agreed that there is a problem,” FitzGerald told a recent public meeting on the issue. “What we disagree on is whether we should do something about it.”

Proof of Marital Breakdown

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FitzGerald’s answer is a legislative package that would give Ireland one of the most conservative divorce laws in the West. No divorce would be granted without proof of marital breakdown over a period of five years.

The minimum age for marriage would be increased, in most cases to 18; women can now marry at 14, men at 16. A three-month waiting period would be required between registration and marriage, and there would be provisions for strengthened marriage counseling services.

Advocates of the government proposal say it represents compassion and tolerance and reflects Ireland’s maturity as a society. They say it will provide partners in failed marriages with a second chance to form a stable, legal relationship.

Zita Reihill, 28, a Dublin commercial artist who was married at 20 and separated with no children at 23, complained: “I’m in a social limbo. Without divorce, I’ll be this way for the rest of my life.”

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A delegate to a recent youth conference put on by the Fianna Fail in the southern city of Cork summed up the feelings of many people in Reihill’s position.

Punishment for ‘Single Mistake’

“Marriage,” she said, “is the only area of Irish law where a person serves a life sentence for a single mistake.”

Opponents of divorce have a different view of the issue. To them, the fight is about protecting the Irish family and traditional values against the destructive influence of a consumer culture they believe has devastated family life elsewhere in the West.

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“Ireland is vulnerable to outside influences,” Bonar said. “We imbibe culture from Britain and the United States because of emigration. If this goes through, the perception of marriage as a life-long commitment will be destroyed.”

It is not only feedback from emigre relatives that has influenced Irish values. Remote rural areas that used to be cut off from the rest of the world now have more television programs available to them than viewers in London--four British channels plus the two Irish channels.

“People who were once informed only by word of mouth, literature and the church hierarchy are suddenly being challenged by ‘Dallas’ and ‘Dynasty’ values,” Prendergast, the FitzGerald aide, said.

Materialistic Values

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Alice Glenn, a member of Parliament representing FitzGerald’s Fine Gael party and an active anti-divorce campaigner, argues that lifting the ban on divorce would be a giant step toward succumbing to materialistic values.

“Ireland today has a duty to hold onto that which has served our antecedents so well,” she said. “The day will come when the world will be glad we did it. The homes of Ireland are modest, but children grow up with their father’s name, and their mothers are there.”

Glenn and others oppose divorce on economic as well as moral grounds. She argues that divorce would cost the country $300 million in additional social welfare benefits and that it would condemn most divorced women to poverty.

She quotes a report by Prof. Lenore Weitzman of Stanford University that in the United States, the living standard of women and their children declined by 73% after divorce and that 93% of divorced women with children live below the poverty line.

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“A woman voting for divorce is like a turkey voting for Christmas,” Glenn is fond of saying.

Fear of Rush to Divorce

Some worry that if the divorce proposal is approved, there will be a flood of divorce actions, even among apparently stable marriage partners unable to resist the lure of something new.

In a recent debate on the subject, which was televised nationally and featured studio audience participation, more than one anxious housewife seemed convinced that the introduction of divorce would cause waves of Irish husbands to leave their wives for younger women.

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The fervor of those who oppose divorce is cooled only slightly by the fact--and they recognize it as fact--that the absence of divorce has led to many problems. For example:

--Marriages annulled by the church are not considered legally dissolved, so that in many cases priests have become in effect accessories to bigamy at church weddings. A rare civil annulment makes bastards of children.

--Children of a married woman by a man other than her husband are legally the husband’s, even if the marriage had broken down years previously.

--Property acquired by either marriage partner, even after separation, is joint property throughout the life of both.

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--Second relationships, and they are increasing in number, have no prospect of becoming legal, no matter how long they last.

Change in Attitudes

The increase in the number of broken marriages has brought changes in attitudes even in the more conservative rural areas.

Father James C. Breen, the parish priest for an area of picturesque farmland around the village of Roundwood, 30 miles south of Dublin, said there are several unmarried couples in his parish, some with children, and this was unheard of a generation ago.

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“Forty years ago, they probably would have been run out of the place,” he said. “Now it’s accepted.”

Eamon Curley, who runs a general store in Roundwood, agreed.

“When I was young, a couple who busted up had to leave,” he said. “That’s all there was to it. My generation is pretty tolerant.”

Curley has lived with a woman for five years, and they have two children, but the relationship has no basis in law because he was married briefly seven years ago. His wife returned recently because she needed his permission to sell a house she had bought long after they separated.

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‘Bad’ for Children

“My worry is for the children,” Curley said. “It’s bad for them.”

As the campaign moves into its final, hectic days, public opinion polls indicate that a narrow majority favor the proposal to permit divorce.

But the anti-divorce forces, working under such slogans as “Support the family, prevent divorce” and with the support of the church, have seized the high moral ground and are picking up votes.

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“It’s very hard to fight against what they are saying,” said Nora Owen, a Fine Gael member of Parliament who supports the change. “You can’t just stand up and call your bishop a liar. That just gives votes to the other side.”

But few here are fooling themselves that the referendum in itself will provide any answer to the social problems rising out of family instability.

“People have been asked to make a decision,” former Foreign Minister Michael O’Kennedy said, “but no matter how they vote, there will be problems.”

Tyler Marshall, who is based in London, wrote this story on an assignment in Ireland.

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