“The institution of marriage in Ireland is in pretty good health”, the Irish Times told us on Monday in an editorial that warned against complacency about the passage of the divorce referendum on May 24th. As for that, it will pass in a canter, but is marriage in Ireland “in pretty good health”? That is highly debatable.
For a start, marriage rates here have fallen steadily since the 1970s. In 1980, for example, the rate was 6.4 adults per thousand per year. Today, it stands at about 4.6, a big drop. Is that a sign of good health? The rate in Britain is about the same, and no-one says marriage there is in good shape.
It’s true that our divorce rate is the lowest in the EU. That’s good news. The Irish Times correctly says that the ‘floodgates’ did not open following the divorce referendum of 1995, but in point of fact very few anti-divorce campaigners back then made that prediction.
Nonetheless, there has been a huge increase in the number of Irish adults who have been through a divorce or separation. In 1986, the figure was 40,000. By 2016, it had climbed to almost 300,000. This fact is almost never publicised and is little known.
Today, there are about 22,000 marriages per annum, and almost 5,000 divorces or separations. This is not an insubstantial figure.
In addition, and as the Irish Times rightly points out (Iona has done its best to highlight the fact), there is a big marriage gap by social class. Professional workers are twice as likely to be married and only a third as likely to be divorced or separated as unskilled workers.
In the last few decades, there has been a huge increase in the number of couples who cohabit. In 1996, the figure was 31,296 and in 2016 it had soared to 152,302.
The number of children born outside marriage each year now stands at about one in three and about one in three children are raised in non-marital family units.
Family law is being changed so that the natural ties matter less and less. For example, a single man, or two men, will be soon be permitted by law to have a child via an egg donor and a surrogate mother. What does this say about the importance of the natural ties or mothers? (Currently the matter is unregulated).
None of the above amounts to an institution that is in “pretty good health”. In fact, while the message of The Irish Times is that we should not be complacent about the forthcoming divorce referendum, its real message ought to be that we should not be complacent about marriage, period.
PS. The real issue at stake in the divorce referendum is not whether a four year waiting time should be reduced to two, but whether the waiting time should be removed from the Constitution completely and left in the hands of future Governments.