Ireland Votes Overwhelmingly to Ease Divorce Restrictions

DUBLIN — Ireland has voted overwhelmingly to ease restrictions on divorce, taking another step toward liberalizing a Constitution that was once dominated by the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

Official figures released this weekend showed that 82 percent of voters in referendum on Friday approved the change, with all areas of the country voting strongly in favor.

The results of come on the heels of other major social shifts in the country: a 2015 vote to legalize same-sex marriage — the word’s first popular vote on marriage equality — and a referendum last year that repealed Ireland’s ban on abortion in almost all circumstances, including rape and incest. In October, the nation voted overwhelmingly to remove a ban on blasphemy from the Constitution.

Divorce was banned in Ireland by a 1937 Constitution strongly influenced by the Catholic hierarchy, and an attempt to overturn the ban in a 1986 referendum was soundly defeated by a 3-to-2 margin. The country made divorce legal in 1995, after a referendum deciding the issue with just over 9,000 votes of 1.63 million cast.

But the new law imposed strict conditions, including a provision that a couple must have lived apart for four of the previous five years before getting divorced.

The results of Friday’s referendum remove divorce regulations from the Constitution and place them in the hands of lawmakers. The government of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, having consulted with other parties, said it would move to reduce the waiting period to two years.

Josepha Madigan, the current culture minister, introduced the bill for the referendum in 2016 as a backbench member of Parliament. As early counting showed strong support for the change, she told reporters: “I think it’s a really strong endorsement from the Irish people for the referendum, and it demonstrates their kindness and their understanding of the situation people find themselves in when they are separating or divorcing.”

The liberalization of the divorce process had been opposed by some Christian groups and questioned by the Catholic hierarchy. Bishop Denis Nulty, chairman of the Council for Marriage and Family for the Irish Bishops’ Conference, said that the legal changes sought to “expedite the dissolution of marriage.”

The bishop of Elphin, Kevin Doran, wrote to his congregation that “Catholic voters, like everyone else, must now consider whether the proposed constitutional change might have the effect of further weakening the social commitment to marriage.”

“The important parallel question that we need to ask,” he said, “is whether society is living up to its responsibility to prioritize the family and to provide the human supports that might help couples to resolve difficulties that arise in their relationship, before their differences become irreconcilable.”

Ireland’s liberal shift, at odds with the trends in many other Western countries, was also evident in early counts for city and county council elections and in the European Parliament elections held on the same day.

Concern about climate change and unhappiness with the Irish government’s performance on a number of issues — including housing, health and runaway spending — led support to swing toward the progressive Green Party, rather than the established center-right parties.

The Green Party topped the poll in the Dublin constituency for the European Parliament, and it seems likely to become the biggest group on the Dublin City Council. The party, which won less than 3 percent of the vote in the last general election, could win as many as three of Ireland’s 11 seats in the European Parliament.

Government officials are also leaning toward giving voters a chance to jettison another artifact of old Ireland: a provision of the 1937 Constitution suggesting that a woman’s place is in the home.

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