By Susan Gately - 29 March, 2019
The Cabinet has approved plans for a divorce referendum to be held on Friday 24 May to coincide with the local and European elections.
Voters will be asked if they wish to remove the four-year minimum living apart period from the Constitution. This would allow a reduced term to be defined by legislation. The original proposal was to enshrine a new two-year wait in the Constitution, meaning the Oireachtas would not have the power to reduce it further.
Under the Constitution, a court can grant a dissolution of marriage if the spouses have lived apart from one another for a period of, or periods amounting to, at least four years during the previous five years. Couples can, in the meantime, legally separate.
The referendum will also ask voters if they want to change the constitutional position on foreign divorces. The referendum will propose deleting the section of the Constitution that does not recognise a divorce registered outside the country. It would be replaced with a wording that would allow for a change in the law to recognise the “dissolution of a marriage granted under the civil law of another state”.
By European standards, Ireland’s divorce rate is quite low at around 0.7 per cent. However, according to David Quinn of the Iona Institute, a think tank promoting the place of marriage in society, this does not give the full picture. “To get the overall marital breakdown rate you must add separated people to divorced people which probably brings the rate up from 0.7 to 1.1 per cent,” he told CatholicIreland.net.
Mr Quinn said it was hard to know if the four-year waiting time was keeping the divorce rate down. A recent report on the Iona website, entitled Mind the Gap II, among other things analyses marital breakdown in Ireland by nationality. It shows the rate of separation and divorce among Lithuanians (living in Ireland) is 22 per cent while for Indians it is just 1.9 per cent. (The rate for Irish couples is 10.5 per cent.) “Why are Lithuanians ten times more likely to have divorced or separated compared to Indians living here? Part of it has to be cultural and social attitudes. There could be an element of that going on here still, but the four years could be acting as a factor too,” he said.
The Director of the Iona Institute was critical of the government for not investigating whether the four-year waiting period was acting as a break on the divorce rate. “Isn’t it a bit irresponsible if it hasn’t done any investigation of that?” he asked.
“What concerns me about the government proposal is not even [bringing] the four years down to two years. It is that they are going to take the waiting period out of the Constitution completely and leave it up to the Oireachtas,” he said, adding that there was “every chance then that the waiting period would be reduced further”.
Mr Quinn had spoken to overseas experts on what impact reducing divorce waiting times had on the overall rate in their jurisdictions. “They felt that if you reduce it below two years you get into trouble in terms of rates. They weren’t sure that going from four years [waiting period] to two years would make much of a difference but they did seem to feel that going below two years might increase the rate,” he said.
If you make it too easy to dissolve a marriage, continued Mr Quinn, you’re turning marriage into a glorified form of cohabitation. Society has an interest in the welfare of children. If more and more couples are not getting married at all, or are divorcing and separating, that means more instability in the lives of children and that is a bad thing in general, he said.
Marital breakdown has a “measurable impact” on children in terms of “their behaviour, their performance at school, tendencies towards depression and anxiety. Even if there was no measurable effect, it is nice to grow up in a happy home.”