Goliath Won--Barely

Author: Kieron Wood

News- Ireland

Goliath Won--Barely

A referendum to allow divorce passed by a razor-thin margin, but a government advertising campaign produced a legal challenge.

Kieron Wood

"Ireland is not a playground for American fundamentalists and their friends, or a social laboratory for their long and frightening agenda," cautioned Ireland's Minister for Equality and Law Reform, Mervyn Taylor, in the bitter runup to November's referendum on divorce.

The minister's warning followed revelations that opponents of divorce had sought financial support from American groups like Human Life International in an effort to counter the massive pro-divorce propaganda of the Irish media and all six major political parties.

Until 1995, Ireland was the only country in the European Union to forbid divorce. That prohibition was enshrined in the 1937 Irish Constitution and could only be changed by a majority vote in a referendum. In 1986, the Government had tried to remove the ban on divorce, but had suffered a humiliating defeat when the electorate voted by a majority of two to one against the proposals. The defeat at that time was attributed to two major factors--the influence of the Catholic Church and the fear that divorce would affect property rights.

In the nine-year period leading up to the second referendum, successive governments enacted a raft of legislation to deal with the property-rights issue. The major piece of legislation, the 1989 Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act, was unique in that it was not drafted by the government. It was the brainchild of Alan Shatter, formerly an opposition member of parliament. Five more pieces of legislation were pushed through by Minister Mervyn Taylor.

During the referendum campaign, the profound influence in the pro-divorce camp of Shatter and Taylor, both members of Ireland's tiny Jewish community, provoked the suggestion that they might not fully understand the nature of Christian marriage--a charge labelled as anti-Semitic and hastily rejected by the mainstream anti-divorce groups.


Opponents of divorce claimed that despite the legislation, the amendment, if passed, would undermine the legal status of 96 percent of Irish marriages, in an effort to help the fewer than 4 percent which had broken down. They argued that divorce would lead to a 10 percent increase in taxes. Pro-divorce campaigners accused the anti-divorce side of lying, and attempting to create a climate of fear.

Democratic Left leader Proinsias de Rossa charged the Archbishop of Cashel with "an attempt to peddle massive deceit," while Minister for Finance Ruairi Quinn said leading anti-divorce campaigner Professor William Binchy was "a very clever man--but so was Hitler." The Minister subsequently apologized.

But, despite the concerted lobbying of the media and politicians, popular opposition to the Government's proposals grew steadily throughout the campaign. In February last year, opinion polls had indicated that 72 percent of the electorate were in favor of divorce. The first poll, in early October, showed 61 percent in favor of divorce and 30 percent against.

The Catholic hierarchy entered the campaign in late October, a month before polling day, with a statement in support of marriage. Cardinal Cahal Daly said liberalization of divorce laws n Northern Ireland (which is now a part of the United Kingdom) had led to a dramatic increase in the divorce rate.


In 1986, the influence of the Catholic Church had been pivotal in defeating proposals for divorce, but this time, things were different.

A series of scandals had rocked the Church since the last vote, beginning with the revelation that Bishop Eamonn Casey of Galway had an illegitimate son, continuing with reports that two other bishops had flown to America for treatment of alcoholism, and culminating in a series of revelations about clerical pedophilia. Opinion polls showed that trust in Church leaders was at an all-time low.

Posters issued by the Socialist Workers' Party during the divorce campaign featured a picture of Bishop Casey with the caption: "Let the bishops look after their own families." The Workers' Solidarity Movement published posters with a photo of Father Brendan Smyth, the Norbertine priest jailed for a series of sex assaults on children. The text read: "The bishops hid priests who raped children. Now they lecture us about morals and children's rights. Express your anger. Vote Yes."

When, two months before the divorce poll, Archbishop Desmond Connell of Dublin admitted misleading the public over payments to a victim of clerical child abuse and Bishop Brendan Comiskey of Ferns was linked to sex scandals in his diocese, confidence in the hierarchy all but evaporated.

What little faith remained was dealt a severe blow when the Hierarchy's spokesman, Bishop Thomas Flynn of Achonry, announced that divorced and remarried Catholics could not receive any of the sacraments--including the last rites. He later felt obliged to issue a correction, but the damage was done. The public perception was of a hardhearted, hypocritical hierarchy attempting to wield an influence it no longer possessed.

The hierarchy's opposition to the divorce proposals was not helped by division within the Church's own ranks. The Right to Remarry campaign was spearheaded by a Dominican nun, Sister Margaret McCurtain and throughout the country many priests and religious gave less than wholehearted support to the "Vote No" campaign. In Drogheda, for example, Augustinians urged their parishioners to vote "yes."

The bishops were further embarrassed when the reported, the day before the poll, that Bishop Willie Walsh of Killaloe had voted "yes" in the 1986 referendum. The bishop, in a letter to the newspaper five days the vote, admitted that the report was accurate, but pointed out that he had not been a bishop at the time.


By early November, the opinion polls showed support for divorce had fallen to 52 percent. The government decided to spend half a million pounds promoting its "Vote yes" message, but its decision was challenged in the High Court by a Green Party European parliamentarian. Seven days before the poll, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that the expenditure of taxpayers' money on a partisan campaign was unconstitutional and anti-democratic, and the government-financed campaign was halted.

As the campaign reached its peak, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul both joined in the calls to the Irish electorate to consider the sacredness of marriage. A week before the vote, the polls showed support for divorce had dropped to 47 percent, with 14 percent still undecided.

In the event, the result on November 24 could hardly have been closer. The vote in favor of divorce was by 818,841 votes to 809,731, after a recount. The majority--slightly over 9,000 votes in a poll of 1.6 million--amounted to just 0.56 percent.

The capital, Dublin, voted overwhelmingly in favor of divorce. There was a major swing towards divorce in the city's working-class constituencies (in the same areas where Mass attendance has fallen to an all-time low of under 10 percent in recent years). But the country's biggest pro-divorce vote came in one of the richest constituencies, Dun Laoghaire, where the result was two to one in favor. In the poorer rural areas, such as Cork County and Longford-Roscommon, the result was reversed: two-to-one against, despite a 10 percent drop in the "no" vote compared to 1986. The "no" vote was not helped by stormy weather on polling day in the west of Ireland (the stronghold of the "no" vote) and warm sunshine in Dublin.


Progressive Democrat leader Mary Harney compared the result to the separatist poll in Canada and said: "A Quebec-like result is not good for democracy; a more decisive result would have been better."

Also damaging for democracy was the perception that almost 50 percent of the electorate had no representation in Parliament for their views on such a vital issue. Even the main opposition party Fianna Fail (whose leader Bertie Ahern has left his wife for another woman) supported the divorce proposals. The reflected: "It is extraordinary that the views of a very large part of society on such matters are not reflected at all in the upper echelons of our political system."

The bishops kept a low profile after the result. Their spokesman, Bishop Flynn, merely issued a statement promising the continued support of the Catholic Church to those whose marriages had broken down, "to ensure that they may not consider themselves as separated from the Church."

The vice-chairman of the Anti-Divorce Campaign, Joe McCarroll, said: "We put up a gallant fight, and we nearly won. The political establishment, with its views articulated by a wiling media, proved unbeatable. There was bound to be a significant percentage of voters who were swung by this. It was David versus Goliath, and Goliath won it--but only just."


Following the result of the referendum, opponents of divorce challenged the result in the High Court in Dublin.

The court action is a two-stage process. First the High Court must give permission for the challenge to be brought. If that permission is granted, the court sets a date to hear all the arguments. The High Court decision may then be appealled to the Supreme Court.

In early December, former Senator Des Hanafin told the High Court that he believed the result of the vote had been materially affected by the Irish government's expenditure of more than on an advertising campaign designed to encourage a "yes" vote. He said that the campaign had been run through an advertising agency, one of whose directors was the brother of the Minister for Finance. The government had only stopped spending money on the campaign when the Supreme Court ruled that the use of public funds for such a purpose was unconstitutional.

A British expert on opinion polls testified that the Irish government's campaign had been emotive and partisan, and could have had a considerable influence on voters, especially those who were undecided. He estimated that the campaign had affected the result by between 3 and 5 percent--enough to change the result.

The High Court gave permission for the challenge to go forward. The full case is likely to be head early in 1996. Until then, the Irish government is likely to put its divorce plans on hold.

Kieron Wood, a journalist and attorney, covers Ireland for .

This article appeared in the January 1996 issue of "The Catholic World Report," P.O. Box 6718, Syracuse, NY 13217-7912, 800-825-0061. Published monthly except bimonthly August/September at $39.95 per year.