Divorce vote shakes Irish government and its ties with neighbors

Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald's government believes it can recover from the shattering defeat suffered in a nationwide refenderum on divorce -- at least to the extent of completing its remaining year in office. As the votes were counted Friday and the scale of the defeat became clear, Dr. FitzGerald rejected opposition leader Charles Haughey's call for an immediate election. And, despite pressure from his party right-wingers who opposed the proposal to legalize divorce in the Republic of Ireland, FitzGerald seems to have no intention of resigning leadership of his Fine Gael party. Analysts expect his government to limp along as a lame-duck administration.

However, the implications for relations with Britain and Northern Ireland are gloomy -- even ``alarming'' in the view of some observers and analysts.

Under last November's Anglo-Irish accord, Dublin has a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland and is acknowledged as protector of the rights of the northern Roman Catholic minority, which has long suffered discrimination. Most of Northern Ireland's majority Protestant community favor continuing union with Britain and resent Dublin's new role. They see the result of the divorce referendum as bearing out their age-old claim that the Republic is ruled by the Catholic church and ignores the rights of its own minorities.

This claim seemed unconvincing while the Republic was visibly modernizing its society and liberalizing its laws. But the result of the June 26 referendum, and the manner in which the campaign was conducted, lend force to their objections.

An opinion poll taken at the end of April showed a majority of 61 percent to 39 percent in favor of removing the ban on divorce from the Constitution. In the course of the campaign the antidivorce cause made such headway that in the vote on Thursday these figues were virtually reversed, with 63 percent voting against legalizing divorce.

The cause of the turnaround became clear long before Thursday. The antidivorce lobby mounted a campaign based on claims -- which analysts veiw as unfounded -- that the introduction of divorce would mean that better-off women would lose property rights and poor women would forfeit welfare benefits. A Catholic bishops's statement reiterated opposition to divorce but said it was a matter of individual conscience. However, from pulpits throughout the country, Catholics (90 percent of the population) were told that a vote for divorce would be contray to the law of God. In some cases, excommunication threats were reportedly made.

The Church of Ireland (Episcopalian) said Friday that the vote would harm Anglo-Irish relations, and the Presbyterian Church issued a sharp criticism. ``We regret that the object of a pluralistic, tolerant, trusting society has had a damaging setback and that the Roman Catholic ethos is being enforced, however incompatible it may be to minority communities,'' its statement said.

But at least two Catholics are more bitterly hurt. One is Fitzgerald himself, the other is John Hume, the moderate Catholic leader in Northern Ireland. The two, who are close political and personal friends, share a dream of building a tolerant, pluralistic society in the independent part of Ireland, with a view ultimately to unite the whole island with the consent of the northern Protestants. This vision has now receded so far into the future as to be invisible.

In the shorter term, the already difficult task of building confidence between north and south and between Protestant and Catholic communities in the north could become next to impossible. Exactly 100 years ago, Irish ``unionists'' opposed the granting of independence to Ireland by the British Parliament because they claimed ``home rule'' would be ``Rome rule.''

Speaking on Sunday, Mr. Hume said that since the Anglo-Irish agreement was signed, the unionist opposition had had virtually no support in Britain or abroad. But after the divorce referendum vote, he said, sections of British opinion have again begun to think they may be right in claiming that the rights of conscience would not be respected in a united Ireland. And it may be some time before the Republic gets another chance to disprove this.

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