Out of the dark ages

While the divorce referendum has resulted in a marginal improvement, writes Anne McShane, the absence of a fighting working class is still making itself felt

The overwhelming vote - 82.1% - in favour of liberalising divorce in the May 24 referendum illustrates the changed nature of Irish society. Éamon De Valera must be spinning in his grave.

The architect of the 1937 constitution, De Valera dominated Irish politics from 1921 up until 1973, when he retired as president. As an arch-Catholic, he wanted the church to govern every aspect of private life, and to confirm the patriarchal family as the mainstay of the state. Article 41 to this day asserts that the family is “the natural primary and fundamental unit group of society” - a “moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law”.

For women this meant domestic slavery - “by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved”. And the state will “endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.1 In fact from 1933 until 1973 married women were prohibited from working outside the home. The ‘marriage ban’ meant that the majority of women had their contracts of employment officially terminated on marriage. My mother’s generation were prevented from having any life outside the home. Of course, they took on cleaning and child-minding to make ends meet, but they were denied the right to any official position in the workforce.

Unsurprisingly the 1937 constitution also included a ban on divorce - a ban that lasted for almost 60 years. An attempt by Fine Gael/Labour to remove the ban in 1986 was met with threats of hellfire and damnation. Statues of the Virgin Mary in villages were claimed to have moved in an ominous warning of the destruction to come. Crowds gathered at grottos in the hope of witnessing such miracles, and the church’s work was done: the electorate rejected divorce by 63.5%. Broken and loveless marriages were covered up and people were forced to live in misery. True, in 1989 legislation was introduced allowing for judicial separation, but it forbade the right to remarry.

By the early 1990s Ireland, a bastion of traditional Catholicism, was the only country in Europe where divorce was still illegal - a source of great pride for pope John Paul II, who had been welcomed by a crowd of over 2.5 million people on his visit in 1979. A minor breakthrough came in 1995, when the constitution was amended after a referendum to allow divorce in very restricted circumstances - where the couple could prove they had been lived apart for four out of five years. The proposal barely scraped through, with 50.28% for and 49.72% against, amid warnings from church officials that divorce was “unCatholic” and would lead to instability in Irish society. Catholics who got divorced or remarried were told that they could be denied sacraments, such as communion and confession.

Those warnings still mattered in 1995. But the hold of the church was being eroded. The publication of reports revealing systemic abuse of those in the care of the clergy - in state-funded establishments - led to massive anger. We learned through official reports that women in homes for unmarried mothers had been tortured and shamed, and their children were stolen from them. Many of these children died in dubious circumstances or were put into homes. Children in state care and people with disabilities were also subjected to shameful discrimination and physical and sexual abuse. Then there were the cover-ups and the lies.

It was apparent that the Catholic church had no right to be the moral guardian of the people. It was a malign force, which had been systematically abusing the most vulnerable in society. Attendances at mass collapsed in the late 1990s and have not recovered. And even those who still attend often no longer follow the church’s rules.

But there has also been European integration, economic change and urbanisation - we are no longer a nation of small farmers. Ireland has come more to resemble other European countries like France, Italy and Portugal, where religion is marginal to everyday life. In 2015 same-sex marriage was introduced by referendum and in 2018 the “right to life of the unborn” was finally removed from the constitution and abortion legislated following a decades-long struggle, culminating in a referendum. This represented a hugely significant victory for women’s rights and a major blow against the power of the church to determine the way that people live their lives.

However, in contrast to the huge controversy in 2018, this year’s divorce referendum barely raised an eyebrow. It was expected to pass without difficulty and I am not surprised by the margin of victory. The 1995 legislation was a nightmare for men and women seeking a divorce. To have to wait for over four years for a conclusion to an unhappy marriage caused great torment. And to have to prove that you have actually been living apart - ie, not under the same roof - is financially crippling for couples unable to sell their homes without a divorce. So the new legislation is only a marginal improvement in that respect - only two out of three years living apart! Divorce should be immediately available on the request of either party - the state has no right to determine how long people should stay married.

There are plans ahead to amend the constitution still further to remove the most offensive sections of article 41 on the role of women. And more and more people are taking an à la carte attitude to their Catholicism. Many parents still have their children baptised, and there are also communion and confirmation ceremonies, but these now have more the form of rites of passage. In fact many friends and relatives choose to go only to the ‘after party’ rather than the church.

But, despite the positive growth of secularism, economic and social conditions are worsening. So, while a slightly more liberal access to divorce is welcomed by many, the problem is that many couples cannot afford to separate. There is a major housing crisis in Ireland and the cost of housing is astronomical, with property prices increasing by over 80% since their low point following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. In Dublin prices have gone up by 92% since 2013. Refusal to invest in social housing has meant that private landlords have had a field day, and rents have more than doubled. Of course, there are plenty of empty properties and plenty of rentals for tourists, but very little for the 10,000 homeless at the present time. People remain in the same house because they cannot afford to move on. Divorce is often a luxury - painful and expensive.

Ireland has changed. But not under the leadership of the working class. We still have to put our mark on this society and ensure working class people can demand what we need both politically and economically. Legal rights are meaningless without the ability to enjoy them.

  1. www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/cons/en/html#article41.