Irish Divorce Ban Shaky as More Couples Split : Religion: The overwhelmingly Catholic nation plans a vote next year on whether to change the constitution. A similar effort failed seven years ago, but times may be changing.


Mary O’Hagan knew early in her marriage that it wouldn’t last, but in the land of no divorce, breaking up is so hard to do.

“There was nothing majorly wrong, but we weren’t going to be life partners,” she said. “It wasn’t going to work.”

O’Hagan, a 36-year-old Dubliner, separated from her husband in 1984, after three years of marriage. She has a baby by another man, whom she lives with and wants to marry.


That is not possible in Ireland, an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation, unless the first husband dies or unless the people vote next year to legalize divorce.

More than seven years after Ireland rejected divorce in a bitterly fought referendum, there are signs that the political climate may be ripe for abolishing the constitutional ban in effect since 1937. Census figures released in May show that 67,000 people are separated.

In January, the new coalition government of Fianna Fail and its more liberal partner, the Labor Party, announced that another divorce referendum would be held in 1994. But it said the vote would come only after full debate and the passage of laws addressing property rights and other financial issues.

“The last time this became a national issue, there was a huge sense of threat,” former Justice Minister Padraig Flynn said in releasing the government proposals on divorce last year. “Married people felt threatened. Separated people felt threatened. Women felt threatened.”

Judicial separations were introduced in 1989, allowing spouses and dependent children to receive maintenance and providing for legal transfers of property.

But remarriage in Ireland is forbidden and foreign divorces or remarriages are unlikely to be recognized. Many of the legal safeguards for married couples, including court orders for protection from abusive spouses, do not extend to cohabitants.

Laws pertaining to sexuality and the family are gradually loosening. Parliament recently voted to permit vending machine sales of condoms, which were not available at all until 1979, and then only to married couples.

A vote is expected later this year on decriminalizing homosexual acts, and Parliament also has to deal with a Supreme Court decision that upheld a limited right to abortion.

John O’Connor, father of controversial rock singer Sinead O’Connor, has seen attitudes change since he became involved in the issue.

“In 1980, when we started the Divorce Action Group, it was said that everybody in Ireland knew somebody involved in a marital breakdown,” said O’Connor, a consultant engineer who is separated. “Now, it’s said that everybody knows somebody in their own extended family that is affected by marital breakdown.”

O’Hagan said her separation nine years ago was difficult: “Even then, a lot of people were not admitting separation. There were a lot of unhappy marriages.”

After counseling at the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council had failed, she and her husband hired lawyers to draw up a separation agreement.

Legal annulments are available only under strictly limited circumstances. For example, a woman who marries a homosexual without realizing it probably would qualify.

O’Hagan said her situation, living with the father of her child “is the same as marriage, but without the paper and with a lot of financial drawbacks.”

Unmarried couples cannot claim the marriage tax allowance, but social service rules consider both incomes in allotting benefits.

In the campaign for the 1986 referendum, opponents of divorce argued that land succession would be endangered.

“In Ireland, land is at a premium,” said Trish McKay, a former family law administrator who is studying for a law degree. “Going back to the famine times” of the last century, “your land is your life. The idea was put around that farms that have been in families for years would be lost in property divisions.”

Since 1986, Ireland has passed legislation to protect the rights of children born outside a marriage, giving them equal rights with those born to married couples.

Reforms proposed by the current government include increasing the permissible age of marriage from 16 to 18, placing a monetary value on women’s work in the home for purposes of property distribution and giving each spouse an equal share in the family home.

“The home gives the whole basis of a sharing partnership. It is where the relationship is,” said Ann O’Connor, chairwoman of AIM, a family law reform group that runs a service for people with troubled marriages. “The home is where the marriage takes place . . . but (women) have no rights at all to the family home.”

Her organization’s statistics indicate 72% of women under 30 are registered as joint owners of the family home.

“Between (ages) 30 and 40, that drops pretty dramatically, and the over-50s, well, it’s almost nil,” said Marie Therese Naismith, the group’s executive director.

Among the 472 men and women who came to the AIM office last year, the three leading complaints about their marriages were poor communication, alcohol abuse and money.

“In Ireland, with the emphasis on social values, there has been the feeling (that) you made your bed, so lie in it,” Naismith said. “But that is going now.”

Despite growing acceptance of marital breakdown, the church’s opposition to divorce remains highly influential in a country where 97% of the people are Catholic and 87% attend church regularly.

Jim Cantwell, director of the Catholic Press and Information Office, said divorce creates more problems than it solves.

“It is introduced at the beginning to solve particularly hard cases, but then it becomes easier,” he said. “Really, it becomes divorce on demand, and that is the case in Britain as well as in America.”

Mags O’Brien, head of the Divorce Action Group, contends that Ireland’s experience contradicts Cantwell’s argument.

“The numbers of people separating are increasing, so obviously keeping the ban on divorce doesn’t stop people from separating,” she said.

Cantwell said the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council has 50 centers throughout Ireland where trained volunteers provide marriage counseling.

John O’Connor believes opponents of legal divorce lack compassion.

“The anti-divorce people . . . think we should all be on the ‘Via Dolorosa,’ the Lord’s road, and they don’t seem to give a damn for couples in trouble,” he said.

When the Divorce Action Group was formed, O’Connor said, “like most other people, I was absolutely infuriated that we have a stupid system that enables you to lead a life of loneliness and lots of pain.”

Irish Constitution and Divorce


1.1. The State recognizes the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptiblerights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.

1.2. The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, and the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.

2.1. In particular, the State recognizes that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

2.2. The State shall, therefore, endeavourto ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.

3.1. The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.

3.2. No law shall be enacted providing for the grant of a dissolution of marriage.

3.3. No person whose marriage has been dissolved under the civil law of any other State but is a subsisting valid marriage under the law for the time being in force within the jurisdiction of the Government and Parliament established by this Constitution shall be capable of contracting a valid marriage within that jurisdiction during the lifetime of the other party to the marriage so dissolved.

Source: Associated Press