Dramatically climaxing a national struggle between tradition and reform, the conservative voters of Roman Catholic Ireland decided to legalize divorce in the closest election of their nation’s history, results released Saturday showed.
Despite the narrowness of the victory in Friday’s landmark referendum, the result marked a major shift in Irish public opinion. Analysts said acceptance of divorce would move Ireland closer to its European partners and diminish the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, long the nation’s moral arbiter.
“We’re bringing Ireland into the 20th century at the dawn of the 21st,” exulted Mags O’Brien as she watched decisive urban “yes” votes being counted at an exhibition hall here Saturday. O’Brien, head of a nationwide pro-divorce campaign, is one of 80,000 Irish citizens who are legally separated but have been constitutionally forbidden to divorce.
“This is a defining moment in the separation of church and state,” said Frances Fitzgerald, arts minister and pro-divorce activist.
But Rory O’Hanlan, a judge who headed anti-divorce forces, said the results showed that, “across Europe, people seem to be drifting away from their religious beliefs toward consumerist, selfish, modernist philosophies.”
Anticipating challenges from disappointed anti-divorce supporters, election officials ordered a complete national recount late Saturday. That tally showed that, with more than 1.6 million votes cast, the margin of victory was 9,118 ballots. In percentage terms, 50.3 percent were in favor and 49.7 percent were opposed. Turnout was put at 61 percent.
“It may be a narrow margin, but it is a clear verdict. I am very relieved. It has been a very worrying day for those of us who campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote,” Prime Minister John Bruton said Saturday night.
The amendment is to take effect immediately, but there will be no quick fixes. Rather, couples will have to demonstrate that they have lived apart four of the past five years and that their marriage is irreparably damaged before they may divorce, according to Law Reform Minister Mervyn Taylor.
The election returns signaled a big change in Ireland’s view of itself and its social priorities. In 1986, a call to delete the anti-divorce article from the republic’s 1937 constitution was defeated by a 2-1 margin.
This time, anti-divorce support dropped across the country. In the end, though, it was liberal Irish cities, particularly Dublin, where a third of the voters live, that offset rural opposition to change. A 64.9 percent “yes” vote in the Dublin Northeast electoral district clinched the decision.
Campaigning against divorce was a conservative alliance supported by the Catholic Church. Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II gave their backing to Ireland’s bishops, who denounced the initiative as “false kindness, misguided compassion and bad law.”
Recent sexual scandals involving priests appear to have undercut both the church’s prestige and its electoral message.
“Hello divorce … Goodby Daddy,” shouted anti-divorce placards from Dublin lampposts, reinforcing a message that divorce would lead to the dissolution of families.
“Give someone you know a second chance,” read the pro-divorce posters, arguing that failed marriage, however sad, is a fact of life that needs to be addressed legally.
Since the defeated divorce initiative in 1986, the Irish Parliament has adopted 18 pieces of legislation spelling out the rights and obligations of separated spouses. Issues of property rights, child custody, counseling, succession rights and pension entitlements all flesh out a 1989 separation law.
Analyst Justine McCarthy said the referendum marked a defining instant in Irish national life: the first time that the Establishment abandoned what she called “holy Ireland.”
“To Ireland-modernists, the arrival of divorce seemed a foregone conclusion. For the holy-Irelanders, it represented one last chance to salvage the Irish-and-Catholic culture which had been slipping from their grasp,” she said.