Referendum 1986: Divorce (Dissolution of Marriage)

In 1925, W.T. Cosgrave's Cumann na nGaedheal government introduced a ban on divorce in the Free State. Already prohibited by Catholic theology, divorce was not an issue for the majority of the Free State's citizens at the time, and although the Attorney General Hugh Kennedy opined that the state should make provision for "those who approve of that sort of thing", the ban included citizens who were members of the Church of Ireland. The still somewhat unionist-leaning Irish Times voiced opposition to the ban, claiming it violated the right to freedom of conscience allowed for in the Free State constitution. Others, including independent TD William Thrift warned that the ban could widen the gap between the Free State and Northern Ireland, as well as possibly validating the Unionist mantra that "Home Rule is Rome Rule". On the other hand, the Catholic hierarchy advised President Cosgrave that the church could not sanction divorce for anyone in the state, even non-Catholics. Cosgrave went through with the ban.

Twelve years later, the then President-cum-Taoiseach Éamon de Valera introduced the 1937 Constitution, which upgraded the divorce ban from legislative to constitutional. The only way it could ever be removed would be by a referendum, and such a referendum was not going to be forthcoming in the heavily Catholic Ireland of the few decades after this time. After the 1960s, however, Irish society slowly began to liberalise. By 1981, Fine Gael leader Dr. Garret FitzGerald had been elected Taoiseach, promising a "Constitutional Crusade" - it was his aim to liberalise aspects of Irish society to foster more pluralism and in particular to make the state friendlier to Protestant Irishmen on both sides of the border. Although the liberalising nature of Dr. FitzGerald's plans were somewhat stymied by the abortion referendum he had been obliged to hold in 1983, he held his long-promised referendum on the removal of the divorce ban three years later in 1986.

Despite the long-planned nature of the referendum (Dr. FitzGerald had first announced his intention at the 1978 Fine Gael árd-fheis), the campaign itself ran into organisational problems very quickly. Questions on the implications of divorce on property rights and social welfare had simply not been anticipated by the government, which did not have prepared answers for these questions when they were asked. The Taoiseach liased with the Catholic hierarchy in attempting to negotiate the finer points about marriage in Ireland, such as the minimum notice time before marriage and the provision of counselling services for married couples experiencing difficulties. While happy to discuss the issue with Dr. FitzGerald, the hierarchy maintained that they were opposed to the introduction of divorce in any form. The government attempted to frame the proposed amendment as introducing only a "restricted" kind of divorce, where dissolution could only be attained "if the marriage had failed and the failure had continued for a period or periods amounting to at least five years" with no possibility for reconciliation and appropriate provision made for any of the spouses' dependants. Nevertheless, opponents were quick to deride the amendment as a "slippery slope" to "easy" divorce.

These same opponents ensured one of the most colourful referendum campaigns in Irish history to that point. Conservative Fine Gael TD Alice Glenn condemned the referendum, famously saying that a woman voting for divorce was like "a turkey voting for Christmas". The Kerry-based group "Marriage for Life" claimed that the amendment would result in young couples entering into "trial marriages" and in suffering for families and children, citing negative statistics regarding divorce in the United States. The Anti-Divorce Campaign Committee, based in Dublin, targeted women specifically by warning that they could lose succession rights, pension rights and their family home, and most dramatically that they could be divorced against their will. These groups were joined in their opposition by Fianna Fáil, which was continuing its practice of opposing the government at every inch in order to hasten its demise.

Despite their organisational problems, supporters of the amendment also tried to make their case to the voters. Fine Gael was divided on the issue, with the liberal and conservative wings of the parties campaigning against each other. The Labour Party urged voters to "put compassion in the constitution", while a letter to Irish women from Dr. FitzGerald delivered to every household countered his opposition by telling voters they were being misled, and that the amendment was crafted with the best interests of wives and families at heart.

The referendum results by constituency. The colour indicates which side won, the number indicates by how much. Click to enlarge.
Although opinion polls taken shortly after the announcement of the referendum showed 57% in favour of it and 36% against, in the end the voters were swayed by the anti-divorce campaign, with the polls reversing as the referendum drew nearer and the amendment itself beaten almost two to one. 63.5% rejected it, while 36.5% had supported it. The pro-divorce side was victorious in only five constituencies, all in Dublin. Their best result was 58.8% in favour in Dún Laoghaire. The amendment was most strongly rejected in the western Connacht and Munster constituencies. The best overall result for the anti-divorce campaign was in Cork North West, where 79.0% rejected the amendment.

The referendum had been a disaster for the already beleagured Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Its defeat, along with ongoing economic difficulties, led on to the collapse in the government's support as 1986 gave way to 1987 and Fianna Fáil returned to power. Despite the jubilation on the anti-divorce side, however, it was claimed that the rejection came about less as a result of voters upholding traditional values, and more because of the government's failings to clarify the impact of divorce on domestic support and economic matters. The issue itself was not dead, and it would be put to referendum again by a new Fine Gael-Labour government just nine years later...