Ireland, A Land Without Divorce -- Voters Could Lift Constitutional Ban

DUBLIN, Ireland - Bertie Ahern has been legally separated from his wife for several years, and he publicly presents another woman, Celia Larkin, as his partner.

Ireland's government says there are about 80,000 people in Ahern's situation, separated but unable to divorce because it is banned by Ireland's constitution. Many separated people have had children by their new partners.

But there is this difference: Ahern is the leader of Fianna Fail, Ireland's largest political party. He could become prime minister and, under present law, this conservative Roman Catholic country could have a leader who is not married to his public consort.

No one makes an issue of that, and some Irish see the lack of public concern as an indication of how much the country has changed in recent years. Advocates of change hope to carry matters a huge step forward by ending Ireland's 58-year-old ban on divorce in a referendum today. A favorable vote would leave Malta as the only European country still imposing such a ban.

Results of the referendum will not be known until tomorrow.

Support is slipping

Polls indicate the Irish vote could go either way. When the divorce issue was put to voters in 1986, the pro-divorce movement held a 2-1 lead in the polls, but in the vote it was defeated by the same ratio.

What worries advocates of change now is that support in opinion polls is slipping steadily. Sixty-one percent of voters backed the introduction of divorce on Sept. 30. Shortly afterward, the figure was down to 58 percent. In the latest poll, just 47 percent are in favor of divorce, 39 percent are against and 14 percent are undecided.

"Panic is too strong a word, but I would say there is concern in the government about the outcome," one official said. The government is heavily backing the proposed change, and Prime Minister John Bruton and other ministers have stepped up their campaigning.

Pollsters say the slippage in support for change may have been influenced by a public letter of the Irish Bishops Conference on Oct. 26, which reaffirmed church opposition to divorce and branded the proposed change as "false kindness, misguided compassion and bad law."

If the bishops do have that much influence, it runs counter to accepted wisdom. Social observers have been saying for years that Ireland is changing, and that the influence of the Catholic Church has waned a bit.

It was the Catholic Church that got a ban on divorce written into the constitution in 1937 and censorship of books and other strictures enacted into law. Traditionally, Irish Catholics did not question the word of their bishops, and politicians deferred to them on issues of faith and morals.

But recent years have seen wide-ranging public debates about divorce, abortion, priestly celibacy, women priests and the role of the laity.

Even Sister Margaret MacCurtain, a Dominican nun and professor of Irish history, has challenged church teaching by giving her backing to a pro-divorce group called Right to Remarry.

"I would hope my stand would be seen as a plea for the liberty of conscience which Catholics have been exhorted to exercise, and as a plea for reconciliation and generosity, which has been absent in Ireland," she told the Irish Times.

Church influence appears to have been weakened by a wave of scandals in the past three years that involved clerical liaisons with women and child sexual abuse by priests.

But "if divorce is rejected a second time within 10 years, no politician is going to go near it for a long, long time," said Paul Daly of the Divorce Action Group, which is lobbying for change.

Most politicians are pro-divorce

All six parties represented in Parliament are supporting change.

Many politicians and divorce campaigners say divorce was rejected in 1986 primarily because of voter concerns about divisions of property. In rural areas, there was concern that divorce could break up family farms.

Since that vote, the government has introduced 18 pieces of legislation covering property rights, child custody, maintenance payments, marriage counseling, mediation, social welfare and other issues involved in divorce. A key law was the 1989 Judicial Separation Act. The government says 80,200 people have obtained separations since.

Mervyn Taylor, the government minister of equality, said the referendum reflects the fact that marriage breakups are increasing, and separated people who have formed new relationships are in legal limbo.

"They and their children are denied the sense of worth which comes from being a fully recognized family within the community," Taylor said.

Fears of a "divorce culture"

Under existing law, Irish who get a divorce abroad and remarry are bigamists under Ireland's constitution. Likewise, a Catholic who obtains a church annulment (as about 400 people do each year) and remarries within the church is still a bigamist under civil law, although no one is prosecuted in such cases.

Gerry Hickey, spokesman for the Ministry of Equality and Law Reform, said the government is anxious to avoid introducing "a divorce culture" in Ireland. For that reason, a proposed constitutional amendment would allow people to divorce only if they have lived apart at least four of the previous five years.

Peter Scully, a director of the No Divorce Campaign, contends that "means absolutely nothing" because, in his view, people wouldn't need to live apart physically to qualify.

"It's a trick by the government to try to make divorce more palatable to the public," he said. "It's no-fault, quickie divorce."

Government officials predict Ireland's experience with divorce will be similar to that of Spain and Italy, which have similar cultures and low divorce rates. Opponents, however, cite the example of neighboring Britain, where almost half of all marriages end in divorce.

They estimate that additional social welfare costs resulting from divorce could amount to $24 million.

Richard Greene, a leading anti-divorce campaigner, recently suggested that Minister Taylor and Alan Shatter, a member of Parliament who wrote the Separation Act, might not have a proper understanding of Christian marriage.

Taylor and Shatter are Jews, and Greene's remark caused a public outcry. He then denied it was intended to be anti-Semitic.

The polls indicate that opposition to divorce is strongest in the 18-24 age group and in the 60-plus age group. It also is higher among rural voters than those living in cities.