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Haughey warned about possible international law breach with 'illegitimate' children and divorce

Ireland wanted to ‘avoid a situation’ where it was found to be in breach of its international commitments.

Anti-divorce poster in 1986.
Anti-divorce poster in 1986.
Image: Photocall Ireland

A LETTER TO the Taoiseach Charles Haughey in 1982 reveals that the Irish Government were concerned about being in breach of international law in relation to the concept of ‘illegitimate’ children and divorce.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs Gerard Collins wrote to Haughey stating that he wanted to bring a number of proceedings taken against Ireland under the European Convention of Human Rights to his attention.

The two cases he was concerned about related to the contentious issues of the status of children under the law as illegitimate, as well as divorce. He said the normal practice was not to bring these cases to the Taoiseach until the Commission decides the case is admissible or if oral hearings in Strasbourg are imminent.

Strong case

However, Collins said that the applicants for the “illegitimacy issue” can “produce strong supporting case-law under the Convention in support of their arguments that Ireland is in violation of its obligations”.

He told Haughey that there are “real doubts” regarding the compatibility of Irish law with the non-discrimination provisions in the Convention, adding that the Law Reform Commission had recommended the concept be abolished.


Addressing the issue of divorce in Ireland, Collins said it “is a novel one for the Commission, and it is hoped they will deal with it with due caution” adding:

In our written observations on both cases we indicate the seriousness of the consequences if the Commission were to find a conflict between our Constitution and the Convention.

My concern is to try to avoid a situation where Ireland is found to be in breach  - or, indeed, is in breach – of its international commitments. I thought you might wish to be made aware of these two cases at an early stage…

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It wasn’t until five years later under the Status of Children Act 1987 that the status of illegitimacy was abolished and the amended law on maintenance and succession for non-marital children. It allowed unmarried fathers to apply for guardianship of their children, and for blood tests to be provided to establish paternity.

In 1986 a referendum was held asking the public about removing the ban on divorce in Ireland, however it was defeated. It wasn’t until another referendum in 1995 was passed and divorce was made lawful in the country in June 1996.

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