Citizens in the Republic of Ireland have voted by an overwhelming 82.1% to liberalise the country’s divorce laws, in a referendum held on the same day as local and European elections. The vote continues Ireland’s path of social liberalisation, which was strikingly demonstrated by 2018’s decision to scrap the ban on abortion and 2015’s legalisation of same-sex marriage.
Divorce was banned in the 26 Counties soon after independence, in 1924, and the ban was written into the 1937 Constitution. Even clerical-fascist Portugal never banned divorce; clerical-fascist Spain did, in 1939, but Spain reintroduced divorce rights in 1981, soon after the fall of Franco, and now grants speedy no-fault divorce.
Divorce was first re-legalised in Ireland in 1995, after a referendum approving it 50.28% to 49.72%. This latest referendum result means that a clause in the current constitution, stipulating that spouses must be separated for four of the previous five years in order to divorce, will be removed. It will up to the Irish parliament to put in place new regulations. The Irish government has suggested two years. The Yes vote will also make the recognition of foreign divorces explicit in the constitution.
The presence of divorce and abortion bans in the Irish constitution was a consequence of the influence of the Catholic Church, and powerful lay lobby organisations linked to the Church. Constitutional prescriptions on abortion were the result of lobbying from the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign as recently as 1981 and 1983. The recent string of liberalising referenda reflect the waning power of the Church, rocked by child sex abuse scandals.
The vote was backed by all major parties, and won in every county in Ireland. Even in Monaghan, which had the strongest No vote, over three quarters of voters backed the proposal. There is still more to be done, to make the new divorce legislation as liberal as possible, and should to further pushes around women’s rights and the definition of the family in the Constitution.