Ireland moves to lift 50-year-old constitutional ban on divorce

Divorce may soon become legal in the Republic of Ireland, almost 50 years after an article in the Constitution banned it. Irish Prime Minister Garret Fitz-Gerald's coalition government has announced that it will introduce legislation to hold a referendum on the ban. The 1937 Constitution can be changed only after approval by a majority of the popular vote in a referendum. The vote will probably be held near the end of June.

Opinion polls over the last several years have shown a large majority -- as high as 77 percent -- in favor of allowing divorce ``in certain circumstances.'' The same polls, however, show only a narrow majority willing to vote for complete removal of the constitutional prohibition.

The reason for this apparent contradiction: Most voters would like a divorce law, if introduced, to be restrictive. Many fear that a liberal (``California-style,'' as it is known here) divorce provision would be introduced. A poll published last week in the Irish Times shows roughly 60 percent favor removing the ban.

The government has tried to meet these objections by announcing that divorce will be allowed only in cases where a marriage can be shown to have failed and the failure has continued ``for a period or periods'' of five years. The lobby favoring a provision for divorce has says it is satisfied with this requirement.

The Republic of Ireland's major political parties are split on the issue, but majorities in both parts of the ruling coalition favor the move.

The chances of success for the referendum are considered good, say experts, but by a narrow margin. They would be judged excellent but for two factors: the behavior of young voters, who favor change, but may not in many cases take the trouble to vote, and the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church, which claims 90 percent of the Republic's population.

The Catholic bishops have frequently made clear their opposition to divorce, but they are known to be divided on tactics. The introduction of divorce will be seen as a major blow to the church's influence, but it would hit the church even harder if it openly and unsuccessfully campaigned against the change.

Accordingly, the more liberal in the church leadership wish merely to restate their position. But some bishops and many priests are certain to get involved in opposing the referendum.

The government is anxious that the referendum not be seen as a church-state confrontation. There have been violent protests in Northern Ireland against the Anglo-Irish agreement, which gives the Irish government in the South a consultative role in governing the province of Northern Ireland. Part of the objection by the Protestant majority in the north arises from the perception of the Republic as a society dominated by the Catholic Church. If the church is seen as capable of defeating the divorce referendum, experts say inter-Irish relations will suffer.

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