This week sees the 20th anniversary of the referendum that narrowly legalised divorce in Ireland back in 1995.
Various media outlets are marking the occasion, chiefly by claiming that the Yes side was right about the effects of the referendum and the No side was wrong. (This leader in today’s Irish Times is a good example).
Needless to say, this is too simplistic because each side was right on certain points and each side was wrong on certain points.
The No side is being chiefly accused of incorrectly predicting that the ‘floodgates’ would quickly open it we voted for divorce and we would soon find ourselves with a divorce rate as high as that of Britain or America.
That has patently not happened. Our divorce rate at present is the lowest in Europe at 0.6 divorces per thousand people per year.
On the other hand, anti-divorce campaigners did not uniformly predict that the ‘floodgates’ would open. The main one to do so was retired High Court judge, the late Rory O’Hanlon.
Leading anti-divorce campaigner, Professor William Binchy does not appear to have made this prediction, for example. His main arguments centred on the injustices divorce would create.
Looking at divorce rate on its own is misleading
In addition, and crucially, the divorce rate on its own does not tell the full story. To get the true level of marital breakdown in Ireland we must add separations to divorces and when we do that, the rate of marriage breakdown roughly doubles.
In fact, if we measure marital breakdown as the number of divorces and separations in a year compared with the number of marriages in a year, we arrive at a rate of one in four. (There are about 20,000 marriages annually versus about 5,000 separations or divorces).
A marital breakdown rate of one in four is worryingly high.
This rate means that the total number of adults who have suffered a broken marriage in Ireland has gone from 40,000 in 1986 to 250,000 by 2011. That is a lot of people.
Yes side wrong on cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births
The Yes side for its part made claims that have also proven to be wide of the mark.
For example, it was claimed that the amount of cohabitation would fall if we allowed divorce. In fact, it has soared.
In its final editorial before the vote, The Irish Times claimed that our failure to introduce divorce in 1986 was responsible for “reducing the number of marital partnerships and increasing the number of children whose parents are not legally contracted to each other.”
This implies that the introduction of divorce would increase the number of marital partnerships and increase the number of children being raised by married parents.
Instead, the percentage of the adult population in Ireland that is married has continued to decline and the number of children being raised by unmarried parents has increased.
In other words, media commentary on the 20th anniversary of the divorce referendum has been far too one-sided and has not properly examined the predictions that both sides made and held the predictions of both sides, and not just sections of the No side to the light of day.
(PS The above graphic is taken from this document which gives lots of facts and figures about the family in Ireland).