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The 1995 referendum campaign was a thoroughly different beast to this one

Friday’s referendum has failed to see much of a debate.

Irish divorce vote poster Campaign poster ahead of the 1995 referendum. Source: PA Images

THE REFERENDUM TO introduce divorce into this country was passed by just 9,114 votes.

Fewer than 10,000 votes out of 1,633,942 votes cast, a margin of 50.28% to 49.72%.

The razor-thin result brought an end to a fraught campaign that is a long way from the current one which has barely got a mention as voting day approaches.

This is understandable given the change being relatively minor compared to the one 24 years ago.

Despite this, it is worth remembering that the 1995 vote only came about as a result of a number of other significant changes in the years beforehand.

Divorce was strongly rejected by the Irish electorate in 1986 but in the intervening years judicial separations became more common and marital breakdown was a reality.

Judicial separation allowed couples to separate and provided a legal basis for arrangements such as child custody, access and maintenance.

Laws around property rights for separated couples had also been introduced, undercutting one of the primary arguments from the referendum nine years previous.

Crucially though, separated couples remained legally married and as a result could not remarry.

“To continue to deny such a right, would represent a grave injustice to many of thousands of individuals, ” Tánaiste and Labour leader Dick Spring said while announcing the referendum.

Aside from the personal and social toll proponents of a change pointed to, Ireland’s lack of divorce made the country an international outlier and there was significant political will to hold another referendum.

MICHAEL NOONAN DIVORCE REFERENDUM IN IRELAND 1995 RELIGIOUS ISSUES Ministers Niamh Breathnach and Michael Noonan in September 1995. Source: RollingNews.ie

The Fianna Fáil/Labour government that came to power in 1993 pledged to do so and this was taken up by the Fine Gael-led ‘rainbow coalition’ that took over the following year.

The wording of the amendment put to the people did introduce divorce, but it did so with several requirements that were restrictive even by the European standards of the day. The requirement that couples be separated for four out of the previous five years particularly so, and this is what we are voting to remove on Friday.

In addition, the amendment laid down that there must be “no reasonable prospect of reconciliation between the spouses” and that “proper financial provision for spouses and dependent children” must be made.

Those two requirements will be unaffected if this week’s vote passes.

1995 campaign

Despite all the major parties pushing for a Yes vote in the 1995 referendum, the campaign against it pushed ahead with perhaps some of the most memorable sloganeering in Irish political history.

The claim that introducing divorce would lead to a culture of marital breakdown was summed up by the famous ‘Hello Divorce… Bye Bye Daddy…’ poster campaign.

00000286_286 Source: Rollingnews.ie

The Catholic church also ramped up the rhetoric in opposition by saying that couples who divorced and sought to live with another partner could not receive communion.

“They may not remarry in church and while they live together they may not receive the other sacraments, ” church spokesperson Dr Thomas Flynn said at the time.

Public support for the amendment had seemed assured ahead of the campaign but the race tightened to the toss-up seen on the day of the ballot.

The county-by-county breakdown of the results demonstrated a strong divide.

Dublin, Kildare, Louth and Wicklow voted Yes while the rest of the country voted No, save for only two exceptions.

In the years since divorce’s introduction, divorce rates have remained comparably low but the cost expensive. Something which has been attributed to restrictions placed on the process.

They’ve fluctuated due to prevailing economic conditions but have been consistent enough for the concept to become commonplace.

Coming as it does on a very busy day of voting, this week’s referendum has failed to raise much of a debate. There is no visible coherent campaign against it and opinion polls have put support at above 75%.

A far cry from the coin flip of 24 years ago.

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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