A Divorce From Tradition: 20 years on


On 24 November 1995 Ireland voted to overturn a longstanding constitutional ban on divorce. The referendum passed with a slim margin of just 0.3%. A previous referendum in 1986 had failed to pass when the Irish electorate rejected lifting a ban on divorce by a margin of 25%.

In the 1980s, Former Fine Gael Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald began a constitutional crusade in an attempt to modernise the Irish constitution and make it more compatible with Northern Irish society. It was hoped that this would improve the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In June 1986, a referendum was held on divorce by the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition government.

Fitzgerald had the support of the liberal wing of his party, such as former Minister of Education Gemma Hussey. However skepticism from conservative wings of the party was not absent with Minister for Defence, Patrick Cooney, a prominent objector.  Another TD to speak out against the referendum was Fine Gael TD Alice Glenn who, in a speech to the Dáil, observed that: “The Constitution is to protect the family but a women cast aside is not a family. She becomes a non-person. She loses all protection under the Constitution. The wife and children are diminished. But the opposite happens to the male. He will have formed an alliance with somebody in the workforce who is bringing in plenty of money. That is all he is interested in. This is what has happened everywhere else and it will happen here. It occurs to me that any women voting for divorce is like a Turkey voting for Christmas”.

Fianna Fáil were officially neutral on the matter, however, many Fianna Fáil party members were privately against divorce. Charles Haughey, for example, sought to discredit the government through opposition, campaigning covertly for a no vote.

‘Prominent No campaigner Una Bean Mhic Mhathuna infamously shouted “Get away, ye wife swapping sodomites” […] as the recount veered in the direction of a Yes vote’

The campaign was on the defensive from the outset and was unable to provide answers concerning property rights and social welfare. There was particular anxiety in rural areas, where it was feared family farms would be divided up in the event of divorce. Questions of women’s rights to property following divorce were also left unanswered as Irish Independent columnist Mary Kenny noted in a conversation with Trinity News: “Rural Ireland was fearful about the division of farmland that might follow a divorce, and women (including some feminists) were ambivalent about their property rights after divorce. (This was particularly an issue in 1986, when women’s property rights were not secured in the event of a marriage dissolution)”.

These fears were targeted by a strong opposition led by Catholic Bishops and funded by Catholic groups in the US. In the week preceding the referendum, William Binchy, then Regius Professor of Laws at Trinity College (1992 to 2012) and a conservative barrister, argued persuasively on television against the divorce referendum citing lack of safeguards for social welfare entitlements, in particular for children’s allowances. A week later on 26 June 1986, the divorce referendum was defeated by a majority of 935,843 against, and 538,279 in favour.

It would take nine years for another referendum to be held in Ireland on the matter. While the referendum was ultimately successful, the margin of victory was so tight (50.3% to 49.7%), that an official recount was ordered. Prominent No campaigner Úna Bean Mhic Mhathúna infamously shouted “Get away, ye wife swapping sodomites” at journalists and opposition campaign members during a recount which showed that the public veered in the direction of a Yes vote.

The small margin of victory was carried by Dublin which voted largely in favour while turnout in the West of Ireland, a No campaign stronghold, was dampened by wet weather conditions. Also a slight swing in favour of divorce in areas such as Louth, that had voted no previously in 1986, contributed to the Yes victory. Other constituencies like Cork noted a swing in favour of divorce, however ultimately it did not pass the referendum.

“If we don’t show tolerance for minorities here, we’ll find it harder to argue for tolerance elsewhere.” – Fine Gael TD John Bruton

A significant factor in the second referendum was the increasingly unfavourable view of the Catholic Church in Irish society after the shocking child sex scandals that emerged in the early 1990s. An intervention by Pope John Paul II urging people to vote no was largely dismissed  by those in favour of divorce. Some argued that if the Pope was sincere about addressing morals in Ireland, he should focus on the sexual abuse of children by priests instead.

However other Catholic groups replaced the voice of the church, the Christian Centrist Party; the Children’s Protection Society; the Family Prayer Movement; Teachers Against the Amendment; the Committee of Lawyers against the Amendment. Smaller and less well funded, they nonetheless had some success in shaping the debate on the referendum.  

Charlie McCreevy speaking in the Dail in October 1995 warned against the confusing arguments used by the “No Divorce Campaign” led by former High court judge Rory O’Hanlon. Particularly the argument that the introduction of divorce would alter the status of every marriage in Ireland.

“When the anti-divorce campaign spread confusion, it does it with slogans that have little substance but carry a scary tune. It is like the minor key music which starts when the villain appears in a movie. It sets out to get a shiver going up the spine of the nation by telling the people that the minute divorce is on the Statute Book every marriage will become temporary and conditional……That is pure fiction, comic book stuff”.

“It occurs to me that any women voting for divorce is like a Turkey voting for Christmas.” – Fine Gael TD Alice Glenn

McGreevy’s warning would prove prophetic, a vigorous campaign peaked with another iconic moment. The anti-divorce poster “Hello Divorce, Bye Bye Daddy” remains in the memory of political discourse almost 20 years later. This poster crystalised the popular argument that if divorce was legalised, Irish men would abandon their wives and families in droves. This however never came to pass as Ireland has the lowest rate of divorce in the European Union, at 0.6 per 1,000 inhabitants, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical arm.

There was also a shift in the way Ireland was attempting to present itself as the 20th century ended. In the previous referendum prominent political figures opposed divorce. By 1995 all political parties were in favour. A new theme of tolerance and acceptance emerged amongst campaigners on the Yes side particularly in relation to Northern Ireland as John Bruton argued in a radio address:

“The essence of the Catholic faith is particularly that it shows forgiveness. It would be very wrong not to allow our law to express forgiveness to those whose consciences allow them to remarry. The case I’m making in regard to Northern Ireland is that we must have a way of governing that includes both communities, that includes the minority community. If we don’t show tolerance for minorities here, we’ll find it harder to argue for tolerance elsewhere. Is it the Ireland we like to present to the world as a place that has very strong beliefs but doesn’t need to enforce them by law, that welcomes people with a different point of view and treats them well? Or an Ireland that’s so afraid it has to use the criminal and civil law to enforce a particular set of beliefs?”

Bruton’s speech is widely credited with giving the Yes victory a final push as a legal ruling prevented the spending of public money to promote only one side of the argument. This nearly upended the government campaign and political parties had to increase their efforts for a victory.
The referendum ended with a turnout of 62.2% with 818,842 voting for the proposal and 809,728 against.  A bitter and contentious campaign, the divorce referendum was a significant moment in Irish politics and history. The result however slight, was a significant moment in the separation of church and state and important in terms of the efforts towards a peace settlement in Northern Ireland where the influence of the Catholic Church on Irish society was feared.