WHEN voters go to their polling stations on Friday, May 24th, as well as being given their ballot papers for the local and European elections, they will also be given a green one for a referendum asking if they would be in favour of removing the first part of Article 41.3.2 of the Constitution that sets the minimum living apart period for spouses seeking a divorce at four of the past five years. If this change is approved in the referendum, the government intends to legislate to reduce this period to two out of the previous three years.
The introduction of divorce in Ireland took a number of referenda and it has been available here for more than 20 years. The Fine Gael-Labour Party government led by Garret FitzGerald introduced the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 1986, but this was roundly rejected in a referendum by 63.5% to 36.5%.
When a similar coalition government, with the Democratic Left party added, was in power in 1995, this time with John Bruton as Taoiseach, in a further referendum at the end of November, the Irish people chose by a very narrow margin, 50.28% for to 49.72% against, to remove the constitutional prohibition on divorce. Interestingly, the Cork South West constituency had a solid majority, 60.5% to 39.5%, against removing the divorce ban which had been in place since the drafting of Bunreacht na hÉireann in 1937.
In this month’s Referendum on the Regulation of Divorce seeking to change some of the constitutional provisions, as well as being asked if they agree to remove the requirement on how long people must be living apart before applying for a divorce, voters are also being asked to agree to constitutional recognition of foreign divorces – these are already recognised by law here.
Among those calling for a Yes vote in this 38th amendment of the Constitution referendum is the Law Society of Ireland, whose members are at the coalface of litigation in this area, and who earlier this month launched a major report, entitled ‘Divorce in Ireland: The Case for Reform,’ described as ‘a unique piece of empirical research’ on the subject. Central Statistics Office figures tell us that the number of divorced people in the State has increased from 35,100 in 2002 to 103,895 in 2016.
The Law Society report’s principal author, Dr Geoffrey Shannon, a member of its Family and Child Law Committee, commented: ‘Undoubtedly, the rise in the number of divorced persons also reflects an increasing acceptance of divorce within Irish society as a remedy to an irretrievably broken-down marriage.’ His report makes 11 recommendations with a view towards improving the practise of divorce law.
There does not seem to be any major groundswell of opinion against the forthcoming referendum proposal; certainly no obvious vocal organised group. Of course, groupthink does not matter greatly, because in the final analysis, it is up to individual voters which way they cast their ballot on May 24th.
Notwithstanding the closeness of the 1995 referendum that cleared the way for divorce to be introduced with only a slim overall majority of about 10,000 votes nationally, it would be a major shock if a No vote prevailed on the 24th.