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Activists Dig Their Trenches in Battle Over Divorce

November 2, 1995

DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) _ The fight to legalize divorce in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation is pitting Ireland against itself: church and state, young versus old, tradition against today’s changing world.

``Our opponents suggest that legalizing divorce somehow threatens happy marriages,″ said Niamh O’Connor of the Right to Remarry Campaign. ``That’s a pretty sad commentary on their view of marriage _ that couples are trapped in them.″

Anti-divorce campaigner Jeremy Hennessy, married and father of four, says divorce is for ``people who haven’t the guts to get married _ for people who want the state to call their relationships of convenience marriages.″

The government, struggling to take a neutral line, says divorce should be available for more than 75,000 people legally separated but married ``till death us do part.″

The issue has divided families, and for weeks it has filled church halls, country hotels and community centers with debate.

Opinion polls show about 60 percent leaning toward voting ``yes″ in the Nov. 24 referendum. But polls suggested much the same in 1986, only to be proved decisively wrong the day when a measure to legalize divorce lost by nearly 2 to 1.

But much has changed in Ireland since 1986:

_Rates of marriage and childbirth have declined while the number of people in broken-down marriages has surpassed 75,000.

_The Roman Catholic Church’s influence has been eroded by scandals involving priests who have mistresses and priests who abused children.

_Women have increasingly assumed leadership positions: 20 women are lawmakers in the 166-seat parliament, more than ever before, and President Mary Robinson privately supports divorce.

At issue is Article 41 of Ireland’s 1937 constitution: ``No law shall be enacted providing for the grant of a dissolution of marriage.″

The proposed 15th amendment would eliminate that phrase, allowing divorce if the couple had been separated for four of the previous five years, and if there was ``no reasonable prospect of a reconciliation.″

Pro-divorce campaigners argue that all Ireland’s current law accomplishes is to prevent remarriage.

In 1986, divorce opponents tapped fears that husbands would abandon wives in droves. At rally after rally, the same anxieties cropped up: Who would inherit the family farm? Who would pay for the children, and the girlfriend’s children?

Since then, Ireland has enacted laws covering separation, child support and protection, conjugal rights, marital rape, recognition of foreign divorces and adoptions.

``We have all the law in place, making it possible for married couples to separate with no loss of rights or state benefits,″ said Mervyn Taylor, the minister of equality and law reform. ``The actual legalization of divorce is now the missing piece in the jigsaw.″

Some anti-divorce campaigners accuse Taylor, one of Ireland’s few Jewish legislators, of not understanding Catholic values.

``It’s fair comment, it’s not anti-Semitic,″ said Richard Greene, leader of Muintir na hEireanna, a political party specifically formed to combat divorce. He asserted that Jews would be angry if a Catholic lawmaker tried to change Israeli law, so likewise he had a right to point out that Taylor was ``an outsider ... helping direct this anti-Catholic, anti-Christian onslaught.″

The church hierarchy led by Cardinal Cahal Daly released a detailed criticism of the government’s plans last week and instructed priests to preach on the sacrament of marriage.

Daly pledged church support for ``separated people for whom the indissolubility of their marriage seems to offer only loneliness and struggle.″ But he said legalizing divorce in any circumstances would ``make it harder for couples to remain true to their marriage promise. Such a suggestion would be false kindness, misguided compassion and bad law.″

Bruton responded that the state ``must make regulations for society as it is ... not as one might wish it to be. The social reality is that thousands of couples are living together, without marrying their partner, and are having children.″

The government published 1.5 million leaflets, distributed door-to-door last week, detailing the arguments for and against.

A neutral posture is essential for maintaining cross-party support for the referendum. The largest and most tradition-minded party, Fianna Fail, led opposition to divorce in 1986 and polls show that about 40 percent of its supporters still do.

Fianna Fail’s leader, Bertie Ahern, is one of the few Irish politicians to acknowledge his marriage has collapsed, and attends social functions with his new partner.

Ahern refuses to discuss his personal views on divorce but his brother Noel, a fellow Fianna Fail lawmaker, is actively opposed.

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