Divorce and Ireland – it’s a long story

The First Divorce Referendum

The 1980’s was a bleak time in Ireland. It was grey and cold. A ten-year drizzle of unemployment, emigration and oppressive Catholicism drained life and colour from the country.

It was against this ashen backdrop that the first referendum on divorce took place, in 1986.

The Fine Gael-Labour party government led by Garret Fitzgerald proposed a constitutional amendment to allow for the legalisation of divorce. The main opposition party, Fianna Fail and unsurprisingly the catholic church opposed the amendment.

63% of the electorate voted against the introduction of divorce in 1986.

The people, it seemed did not want divorce. The government had no choice but to legislate for marriage breakdown with the Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act 1989. The now famous Legal Separation was born.

If you’re Irish you know what a Legal Separation is, you probably know more people who are legally separated than divorced.

If you’re new to our ways, let me explain; a Legal Separation is, in some ways, litigation that allows you to fudge it.

A legal separation formalises the breakdown of a marriage, is recognised by the courts, can involve court orders in relation to children, financial arrangements and spousal support. BUT, now here’s the interesting part, when you are Legally Separated you are actually still married. You are not divorced and cannot remarry.

To this day Legal separation remains a popular choice for Irish couples who choose to end their marriage but stay married.


A 1986 campaign leaflet from the “Anti Divorce Campaign Committee”. Thanks to Irish Election Literature for this image

The Second Divorce Referendum

Nearly ten years after the first referendum the Irish electorate was asked again, if it wanted to lift the ban on divorce.

In 1995, the Fine Gael-Labour-Democratic left government led by John Bruton proposed the 15th amendment to the constitution in order to allow for divorce.

I was a teenager during most of the pre-referendum campaign, aspects of it have stayed with me. Especially as I navigate the unduly long and drawn-out process that is my own divorce.

It’s the anti-divorce posters and slogans that still stand out in my mind, “Hello divorce, Bye Bye Daddy” was one I haven’t forgotten. Irish men, it was implied were just waiting for the law to change so they could abandon their wives and children. These men were restrained only article 41 of the constitution.



From the No Campaign of 1995. The language appears to be that of a child saying Bye-Bye rather than the more adult “Goodbye”. Thanks to Irish Election Literature for this photo


On the eve of voting anti-divorce campaigner, Prof William Binchy warned that the proposed legislation would result in “abandoned wives” and “quickie divorces”.

The argument against divorce seemed to villainise husbands and victimise wives.

The idea that a wife may be the party who chooses to end a marriage did not feature strongly in the campaigns of either pro- or anti-divorce sides.

It’s hard to believe that Ireland came so close to rejecting divorce a second time. Almost half of the electorate voted against divorce.

In 1995 50.28% of the voters said YES and Ireland became the last country in Europe to legalise divorce.

Maybe it was to appease the conservative voters, or simply to win over the undecided middle ground. Or maybe there was genuine fear that the sky might fall in, but there is no doubt that the new divorce laws were (and remain) restrictive. Divorce was legal, but it was certainly not, as predicted by the no campaign quick, or easy.

On the ground when going through it, the restrictions on divorce and legal separation  are very difficult to endure and for me, make a painful experience a traumatic one.

In particular, what I call The One Year rule, and The Four Year Rule. Because of the law my solicitor and then my barrister were obliged to ask me invasive questions about my sex life. It was Orwellian and terrifying.

It seems so strange that in my lifetime half this nation actually opposed the legalisation of divorce. The same country that voted for same-sex marriage in 2015, the same country that removed the constitutional ban on abortion in 2018. In some regards Ireland has come a long-way, grown and liberated itself from the shackles of its religious past.

Alas we still have some way to go in order to modernise our divorce laws, which remain the most conservative in Europe.

PLEASE NOTE – since the publication of this post Irish divorce laws have been updated. In May 2019 the Irish electorate voted to reduce the waiting period for divorce. Couples can now apply for a divorce just one year after separating. The changes represent the 38th amendment to the Irish Constitution (Dissolution of marriage Bill) and were voted in by a majority if 82%. You can read about the results of the referendum here



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