Ireland in donnybrook over divorce ban

Thirty years ago, John Delany was a young father with two children and a wife. But his wife left the family, moved to England, obtained a divorce and remarried. He says he might have liked to have had a legal divorce back in Dublin - if only for the children's sake.

Ireland, however, is the last nation in Europe, except for the tiny state of Malta, to ban divorce.

His wife's English divorce had no standing in Ireland. Even today, three decades later, Mr. Delaney would be considered a bigamist if he married someone else. Many other Irish people in similar situations live with mates out of wedlock. Delaney says he is not that type.

Recently Delaney told his story to people at a ''Vigil for Divorce,'' a rally held to convince Ireland's politicians to take the divorce ban out of the Constitution.

''I am living alone at the moment and I don't mind admitting that it is a lonely life,'' he told the crowd. ''The law of divorce and domicile in the Republic of Ireland now means that my wife has two legal husbands with one in England and one in Ireland, whereas I have only a paper wife.''

Many of those in the audience talked about broken marriages they were legally unable to end. They pleaded for change.

This fall some action may be taken. A parliamentary committee on ''marriage breakdown'' has been studying the effects of the country's growing separaton rate. By year's end, it is expected to decide whether to recommend holding a referendum in which voters would be asked whether they want the ban eliminated.

If the voters grant permission to do so, the Irish Parliament would be free to enact divorce legislation. Already, groups representing both sides of the issue have begun their campaigns. And although some polls here show that a majority of people in the country would like some sort of divorce legislation, money and power seems to be on the side of the antidivorce groups.

Pushing for divorce is a grass roots organization called the Divorce Action Group (DAG), which has 1,000 members but claims to represent the views of about 70,000 separated people in Ireland.

The Roman Catholic church, the strongest opponent of divorce, is used to government policy often mirroring its theology. Its efforts are being bolstered even further by several large fraternal organizations and a coalition of prominent professionals who last year successfully campaigned for a constitutional amendment to strengthen the country's already stringent antiabortion law.

Both DAG and the network agree that there should be more state-funded counseling to prevent broken marriages.

Ireland's ruling United Ireland Party, (Fine Gael), has given its support to holdinga referendum. The final decision on whether or not it is held is now up to the Republican Party (Fianna Fail), which is the country's largest. It also has much of its constituency in the countryside, where opposition to divorce is high.

Meanwhile, according to the DAG, which seems to be the only keeper of statistics on broken marriages in Ireland, the number of separated people rises by 3,000 each year. The group attributes this to the same problems other countries suffer in the modern age, although they seem to have come to Ireland later.

''People's aspirations are higher and the independence that women seek comes into it,'' says John O'Connor, secretary of the DAG. ''It's also caused by the breakdown of village life. So many people come to Dublin and they leave the structure of a long-term family behind.''

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