The Parallels between the Marriage Equality Referendum and the Divorce Referendum


There are some notable similarities between the upcoming Marriage Equality Referendum and the Divorce Referendum of (almost) two decades ago, and I am not referring to the misleading ‘No’ posters that are again popping up in towns and cities throughout Ireland! In 1995, the Irish people were called on to vote in the Divorce Referendum and the majority (albeit a slim one) voted ‘Yes’ to divorce because they recognised the reality that some marriages can in fact irreparably break down over time and consequently lack the hallmarks of mutual love and commitment commonly associated with marriage. The electorate recognised that, in such circumstances, it would be more pragmatic (and humane) to allow the parties to divorce rather than force them to remain married to each other. The ‘Yes’ vote in the 1995 Divorce Referendum recognised and respected both the reality and diversity of family life in Ireland.

Fast forward two decades to 2015, and once again the Irish people are being called on to vote, this time in the Marriage Equality Referendum, to recognise another reality, the reality that stable gay and lesbian relationships can and do contain the essential features ordinarily associated with marriage. Given that a practically-minded Irish electorate voted almost twenty years ago to alter the Constitution so as to allow those married couples whose relationships lack the essential features of marriage to dissolve their union via divorce, one hopes that an equally pragmatic and fair-minded electorate will vote ‘Yes’ on 22nd May to allow same-sex couples whose relationships are, in essence, marriage-like, to acquire the option of entering into a civil marriage.

Those who argue that embracing marriage equality would be contrary to the Christian understanding of marriage would be wise to remember that Irish marriage law has been uncoupled from Christian morality since the successful outcome of the Divorce Referendum in 1995. This is not just because civil marriage is no longer necessarily ‘for life’, but because Ireland operates a ‘no fault’ divorce regime whereby parties can divorce after a certain time period irrespective of any wrongdoing; Christian doctrine seemingly only permits the parties to a marriage to divorce on grounds of adultery. Thus, Irish marriage law has been progressive for quite some time because, by voting in favour of divorce in 1995, the electorate not only enabled the dissolution of marriage where appropriate, but the ability to divorce was extended beyond the confines of adultery. Similarly, the time has come once again for the Irish people to vote pragmatically. Voting in favour of marriage equality will enable the capacity to marry to be extended beyond a male-female union, and beyond the nebulous Christian understanding, as espoused by Dr. Thomas Finegan in the Irish Times (“Yes campaign is based on entirely flawed premises”, Opinion & Analysis, April 21st), that complementarity of the male-female sexes is what makes marriage special because ‘this is precisely the kind of union oriented towards children and providing those children with both a mother and a father’. Dr. Finegan argues that this is what justifies the State’s support for heterosexual marriage.

Dr. Finegan’s ostensibly child-centred argument for State involvement in heterosexual marriage is not without merit, but it fails to take account of a contemporary child-centred argument in favour of State recognition of, and support for, marriage equality. It is an irrefutable fact of life that same-sex couples are having and raising children. The assisted reproduction provisions of the recently enacted Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 will further facilitate same-sex couples in that regard. There is no credible evidence to suggest that same-sex couples are any less capable than heterosexual couples when it comes to responsible childrearing. Surely the State has a contemporary interest in providing for marriage equality?

A final pragmatic justification for voting ‘Yes’, if one were needed, is the fact that gay and lesbian couples are not seeking to destroy marriage – far from it – they are seeking marriage equality because they wholly respect, and are eager to embrace, all of the positive things that marriage stands for. Voting in favour of marriage equality next month will allow gay and lesbian people who revere the institution of marriage as much as everyone else to finally share in its benefits and protections, and this can only serve to add to and strengthen the institution of marriage.

A pragmatic, compassionate electorate divorced marriage (no pun intended) from Christian doctrine as far back as 1995 in order to acknowledge and provide in law for the reality of marital breakdown in Ireland. Next month, the people of Ireland can do so again and create a more tolerant society where an institution that is revered by all is finally legally available to all.

The Parallels between the Marriage Equality Referendum and the Divorce Referendum

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