Private Members' Business. - An Bille um an Deichiú Leasú ar an mBunreacht (Colscaradh), 1984: An Chéad Chéim (atógáil). Tenth Amendment of the Constitution (Divorce) Bill, 1984: First Stage (resumed).
Tuesday, 15 May 1984
Dáil Eireann Debate
An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy De Rossa moved on 3 May that leave be given to introduce the Bill and the motion was opposed by the Government. In accordance with Standing Order 88 (4) the debate was adjourned until next Private Members' Time. Deputy De Rossa has five minutes.
Mr. De Rossa: I believe the issue of divorce is one of the nettles which various Governments from time to time have looked at and avoided grasping. It is an indication of the kind of double standards which various Governments have applied in relation to social issues in the country. They have made various declarations in favour of social change but when it comes to actually getting into power and implementing their declared objectives the double standards are then applied and they back off.
I believe the need for divorce is beyond dispute. The Committee on Marital Breakdown have received many submissions, the vast bulk of which have indicated that there is a need for divorce in this State and that the present devices used to extricate couples from marriages which have failed are not adequate. We have a situation where there are 7,000 deserted wives at present in receipt of either deserted wife's benefit or allowance. I suppose that can be termed the  Irish solution to an Irish problem. There are many thousands more who, because they are in a different economic income bracket, have agreed to separate and make various financial arrangements. There are others who are in a higher bracket still and who can afford to go abroad and get foreign divorce. There is the barring order, which is the clumsiest way of dealing with marital problems in this State. To argue, as some people do, that there is no need for divorce in Ireland is to ignore all the evidence which exists and which any of us who are active in constituency advice centres can see every week.
The Government have an opportunity on the occasion of the EEC elections to put it to the people of this State to remove the constitutional ban on divorce which is in the 1937 Constitution. It is a long overdue reform of the Constitution. The opinion polls over a great many years have shown a gradual increased support for the removal of that ban. The most recent opinion poll puts it in excess of 60 per cent. Obviously the real test is when it is put to the people in a referendum. We have the opportunity for both partners in the Coalition Government to put their declared policy into effect by presenting a referendum to the people on 14 June and testing the opinion of the people which in my view would be in favour of the removal of the ban.
It is unfortunate that the Government have decided to oppose the Bill which I moved in the House. If they had not opposed it it would at least have allowed us to have a number of hours debate in the House on the issue. This is something which has not occurred since 1937. While there was a debate in the Seanad last year there has not been any debate in the Dáil for that length of time. An opportunity has been lost by the Government by opposing the Bill at this time. I appeal to the Minister of State not to oppose the Bill but to allow it to go forward for a Second Reading debate and put the policy of Fine Gael and the policy of the Labour Party, which are both in favour of divorce, into effect and end the double standards which have been practised in the House.
Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Mrs Fennell): The Government are opposing the granting of leave to introduce this Bill. The Dáil will be aware that when, acting on behalf of the Government, I opposed leave to introduce a similar Bill by Deputy De Rossa in February 1983 it was on the basis that the Government intended to set up a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Marriage Breakdown. The Dáil will be equally aware that this committee were set up last year, with the agreement and participation of the main party in opposition, to consider the protection of marriage and family life, to examine the problems which follow the breakdown of marriage and to report to the Houses of the Oireachtas thereon.
The philosophy underlying the setting up of the Oireachtas Committee was that the issue is of such crucial importance, that every attempt must be made to arrive at political consensus on how it should be dealt with and, while this process continues, leave to introduce the Bill will be opposed. Common sense dictates, as the sponsors of the Bill well know, that a final decision by the Oireachtas on the question of divorce must await the report of the joint committee. It is inevitable that the constitutional prohibition on divorce should come within the scope of the committee's inquiries and the Taoiseach, in replying to a parliamentary question asked by Deputy De Rossa, last year indicated that this aspect of the matter would indeed come within their deliberations.
The question of whether to legislate for divorce is a question that has now definitely entered the arena of political debate in our country. Whatever the outcome of that debate, whatever views one may hold, it is important that the question be faced and that it have serious consideration. Many questions arise in this context: divorce is not a matter of a simple yes or no. If we are to have divorce, is it to be divorce on demand? If not why not, and what restrictions should be imposed? If restrictions are imposed can those restrictions survive? This last question arises because of the way  divorce legislation has tended to develop in those countries whose laws permit divorce.
I would, however, like to assure those who are personally concerned with marriage breakdown that both the Government and I share this concern and to the extent that this exchange enables public attention to be focused on the issue, it is certainly to be welcomed. We live in changing times in which traditional answers no longer provide an adequate response. As politicians, we are all aware that public opinion has moved in the direction of a more flexible and human approach to marriage breakdown and I am sure that the members of the joint committee are equally aware of the shift that is taking place in our society. I cannot anticipate the conclusions of the committee, but I am satisfied that the best interests of people who are genuinely concerned with marriage breakdown is served by allowing the committee to get on with their work without let or hindrance.
Dr. Woods: We are participating fully in the work of the joint committee and we believe the work being done by that committee is particularly valuable and constructive. The work is progressing very well and the committee meet weekly and work with great expedition.
An Ceann Comhairle: As fewer than ten Deputies have risen, in accordance with Standing Orders the motion is deemed to be defeated. I declare the motion defeated. The Bill is rejected and the names of those dissenting will be recorded.
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