Issue 191 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Every autumn the Catholic Church hierarchy meets in the leafy, serene surroundings of St Patrick's College, Maynooth, founded in the 1790s. This year the planned pronouncements on the divorce referendum, only one month off, were hurriedly cancelled. The press conference dealt entirely with clerical child sexual abuse. The bishops were so rattled by the abuse scandals that they let the possible introduction of civil divorce slip down their priorities. This situation would have been unimaginable even a few years ago.
The sex abuse cases in the church are only the tip of the iceberg. There will be more to come. In the wake of the Brendan Smyth case last year, in which the protection of an abuser priest by the legal system brought down the government, more and more people have come forward. In the two weeks following the case alone, 36 cases of alleged abuse by priests and 11 by religious brothers were reported by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. This month more have come to light. The Archbishop of Dublin was forced to admit that he paid out £30,000 from church funds to settle a claim of sexual abuse against a Dublin priest. It is not surprising that, for once, the church had other things on its mind than divorce.
This makes the current divorce referendum very different from the one held in 1986. Then the church was able to weigh in behind the 'no' campaign with devastating effect. At the time of the then coalition's proposals for divorce, six out of ten people were in favour of change. Just eight weeks later there was an about turn and six out of ten rejected divorce. Active campaigning from the bishops--their message put across at Sunday mass--the church's grip on Irish schools, and its influence and mutual backscratching across the main parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, combined to create a formidable political bulwark against social change.
Today the church's credibility is rock bottom. A massive crisis is invading this seemingly once unshakeable edifice. Child sex abuse is only one sordid side of it. There seems to be no end to the scandal. Bishop Casey's affair and abandoned son, and a Dublin priest who hid his common law wife and son while he pontificated about family values, repeatedly return to the headlines. A recent Socialist Worker pro-divorce poster with a picture of Casey and the caption 'Let them look after their own families' summed up the mood of complete disillusion with the church and anger at its hypocrisy.
There are other important changes since the mid-1980s. The political climate then, amid increasing emigration and economic cutbacks, was a predominantly conservative one, where the ruling parties rowed in behind reactionary ideas to ride the economic crisis and Fianna Fail promoted its 'traditional values' campaign.
All that exploded, however, in the early 1990s. The massive outcry against barring a young woman from having an abortion in England in 1992 showed that the old repressive order was no longer working. Rural Ireland had decreased to only 14 percent of the population. Fertility rates halved in 20 years and the numbers of women working increased, from a low base, to 36 percent. Dublin grew to over a million inhabitants, containing working class estates with populations larger than Limerick. The hopes in Labour in the 1992 general election when it got an unprecedentedly high vote in Dublin expressed this accumulated social change.
As part of its programme in 1992, the Fianna Fail/Labour coalition promised a change in divorce law. It is because of political cowardice by all the major parties in Ireland that divorce has been shelved until now.
The government parties have gone out of their way to insist that they are advocating only the most restrictive of divorces. The proposed amendment to the constitution, to be voted on on 24 November, says that divorce will only be granted if the spouses have lived apart for four years, if 'there is no reasonable prospect of reconciliation', and if adequate provision is made for the spouse and children. This amendment has been described as divorce Irish style. A better description would be divorce rich style. Divorce will become accessible to those with adequate material provisions', not only for the spouse and children but also for the hefty legal bills that divorce will entail.The low cut off point for eligibility for legal aid will mean that the low paid will simply not be in a position to contemplate divorce proceedings. Those who might qualify for legal aid, will not have the material means or the access to housing to move out from a marriage that is violent or finished.
Despite its restrictions, however, this amendment--if passed--would represent a body blow to the conservative and reactionary forces that have so long been the pillars of Irish society.
The government campaign is hardly likely to appeal to working class people or those who seek real change. John Bruton, Fine Gael leader from the landowning class of the midlands, has stressed that in the interest of 'social stability' divorce should be allowed. According to him, the existence of a large number of separated people--estimates are 75,000--many of whom are in 'irregular' second relationships, 'cannot be good'.
Labour has been no better. Mervyn Taylor, Labour minister and prime mover of the amendment, has performed somersaults to get Fianna Fail to support the amendment. He has gone for the most restrictive form of divorce hoping that there will be an all party consensus in favour. He has stressed that Ireland doesn't want a 'quickie divorce' culture. Some Fianna Fail TDs (MPs) have paid no heed to his imploring and are campaigning actively against divorce, as they did in 1986.
Taylor's consensus approach has been cooked up at a cost. It has offered a divorce that is not accessible to ordinary people. It has placed all its emphasis on the fact that the amendment is merely legalising the existing situation of marriage breakdown rather than campaigning for it as a basic democratic right.
The thinking behind the Labour Party's and the liberals' faint stand is familiar: Ireland is more urban than ever before, it is gradually modernising, change will come slowly and surely and by getting 'the centre ground' on board. The same thinking informed the Irish 'modernisers' of the 1970s and 1980s, and it failed. Then, by failing to articulate a clear alternative, it opened the door to the right. Today, too, it is a dangerous strategy. Opinion polls are still holding at two to one in favour of divorce. But there is nothing automatic about the divorce referendum getting through. In fact, that gradualist complacency may blow up in their faces.
The anti-divorce forces understand this political dynamic and have moved quickly onto the offensive. There are two anti-divorce groups. Firstly the Anti-Divorce Campaign led by an ex-Fianna Fail senator, Des Hanafin, an anti-abortionist lawyer, William Binchy, and a leading light of the Family Solidarity Group, Joe McCarroll. The second group, No to Divorce, is more openly thuggish and right wing and, with donations from Human Life International, it will not be short of funds.
Many of their arguments plead for a return to an old Ireland untouched by the uncertainties of industrialisation and the multinationals. They argue that divorce will destroy marriages, impoverish women and wreck children's lives. But the marital breakdown rate in the Irish Republic, without legal divorce, stands at one in six. This is higher than in Italy, Spain or Greece, which have divorce. The amount of births outside marriage--one in five--is on a par with other European countries.
Yet their arguments can tap into people's insecurities. In a bleak world of permanent unemployment, harking back to a mythical happier world can seem a way out of a crisis ridden world of drugs and urban despair. The right is always quick to play on these fears. In Italy, in a time of extreme social crisis, the right made common front with the fascists on just such traditional family issues.
That's why there is much at stake in this referendum. There is a massive vacuum between the pathetic government campaign and the arguments from the right. Many working class people feel alienated from the pro-divorce campaign because of its legalistic and middle class focus. They feel this government has delivered them nothing. Furthermore, although the church is at present caught up in the child abuse cases, nothing is to say that it will not make a thunderous comeback towards the end of the campaign.
Unfortunately the traditional left has a rotten record on taking on the church. Liz McManus, Wicklow TD of Democratic Left, in a recent radio interview sought to reassure listeners that what was being proposed was restricted divorce only.
Further back, the socialist tradition in Ireland has also been weak on the question of the Catholic Church. While James Connolly's criticism of the hypocrisy of the hierarchy was relentless, he held that questions of religion were personal matters and that socialists should not intervene on them.
Given the brutal repression of the Catholic Church under the British, it is worth remembering what the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, who witnessed the hold of Catholicism amongst Italian workers, had to say about the church. He insisted that church power would have to be confronted as part of the battle against capitalism. The church was not just a privileged bastion of wealth and privilege. It performed a political function by containing popular protest and stressing the natural, god given role of authority, the traditional family and private property in society. If the church is not challenged politically, it is able to retain its influence among workers and channel their spirit of protest elsewhere.
Today the arguments against the hypocrisy and repressive nature of the church are easy to make. Yet there is a deafening silence from the pro-divorce lobby on these issues. That is why socialist arguments are vital in this campaign. The response to leafleting housing estates and on the streets with a clear pro-divorce case and arguing against the church is far more positive than before.
Clearly, social and political events have changed people's minds on these issues. There was overwhelming support for divorce at the conference of the biggest Irish trade union, SIPTU. Of 350 delegates just three voted against divorce. The potential to blow away the forces of conservatism is palpable. It is tragic that the vacuum created by the spinelessness of the reformists does not make that victory assured.