Why we must vote ‘Yes’ to change on divorce

As a former solicitor in family law and now a minister, Josepha Madigan, Fine Gael Divorce Campaign Director, explains why this week’s referendum must be passed
Why we must vote ‘Yes’ to change on divorce

WHEN LOVE BREAKS DOWN: Nobody wants a marriage to fail, but when breakdown occurs, we need to show compassion and respect

“THE courtroom is a barbaric venue in which to pick over the carcass of a failed marriage,” remarked Fiona Shackleton, Paul McCartney’s divorce lawyer.

This is an insightful remark from someone at the coalface of marital breakdown.

For the best part of two decades, I practiced as a solicitor in family law, specialising in the area of separation and divorce.

I also acted as a mediator in many cases in an effort to assist couples to avoid a court-imposed outcome and the necessity of having to endure protracted matrimonial litigation.

In marriage, we promise ourselves to one another “till death do us part”. This solemn vow reflects an ideal; the steady love and companionship of marriage that many of us hope to enjoy for the rest of our lives.

But sadly, for many couples, this ideal is not reflected in reality. Many marriages do break down and have always done so. We need to treat these families with compassion and respect.

I have witnessed first-hand the pain and trauma that the current time-limit enshrined in our constitution under article 42.1.3, inflicts on families.

The four-year wait period before someone can even apply for a divorce exacts an enormous toll on many people who are left unable to move on with their lives. They are often caught in a long-drawn out court process that only serves to increase acrimony in the long run. Family relationships become further strained, often beyond repair.

When I was elected to Dáil Éireann I was determined to rectify this unnecessary time-limit. I introduced a Private Members’ Bill to reduce the wait period for divorce from four years out of the preceding five to two years out of the preceding three.

In the forthcoming referendum on Divorce this Friday, we are asking people to agree to amend the Constitution allowing Oireachtas members to pass a law that will reduce the separation period to two years out of the previous three.

It is 32 years since the then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald first attempted to tackle the issue of divorce by way of referendum, however it was unsuccessful. It would be almost another decade when former Taoiseach John Bruton brought a referendum on divorce to the Irish people. It was finally passed by the thinnest of margins.

The price to win over a wary electorate was the mandating of a four-year waiting period in the constitution. Yes, the people said, we could have divorce but they were not willing to make it easy.

Our current law can be said to make divorce as difficult as possible. The consequence of this is not, as some claim, the protection of the family unit; rather it leads to the damaging of families. I have seen this with my own eyes.

Our tendency to put restrictions on social policy in the constitution is also problematic. These restrictions reflect the values of our society at a fixed point in time on an issue where public opinion is ever evolving and changing.

Ireland’s waiting time for divorce is one of the longest in Europe and indeed the world. Two years is a more reasonable time period, allowing couples time to obtain legal advice on property, pensions access, maintenance and other ancillary reliefs.

This issue is not a fringe one. The 2016 Census showed that 283,802 people in Ireland are divorced, separated, or remarried. More than 103,000 people have gone through a divorce since 1997 and experienced the minimum four-year divorce period. Divorce is never something that is considered lightly, or undergone easily.

That will not change with this referendum. 118,000 individuals described themselves as separated in the 2016 Census. How is it fair to inflict a draconian 48-month time-period on these thousands of people?

Our country in 2018 is a very different place to the Ireland that enshrined a four-year wait period for divorce in Bunreacht na hÉireann in 1997. It is thankfully an unrecognisable country to the one that banned divorce outright in 1937. We have become a more mature and open society, one that is less willing to judge the life choices of others.

The reduction of the time-limit from four years to two does not undermine the institution of marriage, it simply allows us treat those whose marriages break down with the compassion and respect they deserve.

Later this month, my husband and I will celebrate our 17th wedding anniversary. But for a myriad of personal reasons not every marriage stays the course.

I believe the time-limit for divorce should be reduced from four years to two in recognition of that and in solidarity with our separated friends and family members. That is why I urge you to vote Yes on May 24.

Josepha Madigan is Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and Fine Gael Director of Elections for the Divorce Referendum

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