Why does Ireland have the lowest divorce rate in the EU?

The Irish Independent

It was the poster that defined the most divisive referendum in Irish history – even though it was created by the losing side. “Hello Divorce… Bye Bye Daddy… Vote no!” read the billboards in the run up to the Divorce Referendum of November 24, 1995, which was carried by the narrowest of margins – 50.28pc to 49.72pc.

The words tapped into the fears of many, including some floating voters, that a Yes vote would exacerbate marriage breakdown and lead to thousands of Irish children living in fatherless homes, ones where daddy had exercised his new-found right to remarry.

But 21 years on, even the most trenchant anti-divorce campaigner might be surprised that far from embracing divorce, Ireland has the lowest rate in the EU.

According to the most recent Central Statistics Office figures – released earlier this year, but pertaining to 2013 – the crude divorce rate here is 0.6 out of 1,000. That compares with 2 per 1,000 for the UK.

Even more glaring is the percentage of divorced people versus those married in Ireland: it’s 13pc, as opposed to 47pc in Britain.

But those glancing at the figures and assuming the Irish are more loved-up than our nearest neighbours should think again. At least as many people again have opted for judicial separation, bringing the percentage of those who sought to have the end of their marriage recognised much closer to the EU average.

In fact, the country that the Irish statistics bear closest relation to is Italy, and not just because it is also still – nominally, at least – a Catholic country. Like us, the Italians also have a two-tier system and, like here, many people appear content to choose the separation option.

While “quickie divorces” have long been part of the social fabric of Britain, there’s nothing brisk about the process in Ireland. To be considered for divorce you have to prove you have lived apart from your spouse for at least four of the previous five years. More recently, in deference to straitened financial circumstances for many, the courts and mediation services have accepted that spouses can technically live separate lives while residing under the same roof.

The cumbersome, time-consuming process has its roots in the 1986 Divorce Referendum, which was rejected by voters, two to one. The Fine Gael-led government had proposed liberal divorce laws then, but were much more cautious when it came to drafting the proposed amendment to the Constitution nine years later.

Another product of the failed 1986 referendum was the Judicial Separation legislation from 1989, which allowed courts to rule on property division and other financial matters along with granting a separation. To avail of this, couples had to demonstrate that they were living apart for a year – even less if very poor behaviour by one or both partners could be proved – and when divorce finally became law in June 1996, many people continued to opt for judicial separation due to the relative speed with which it could be enacted. It’s a trend that continues to this day.

Anne O’Neill, a family law solicitor based in Cork city, believes Irish divorce law is relatively straightforward but clients tend to be taken back by the length of time they have to wait before being granted a divorce.

“A lot of people don’t realise that you have to demonstrate you’ve lived four years apart,” she says. “And that’s a long period of time, which can be very off-putting.”

O’Neill says judicial separation can be much more appealing for many people because they don’t find themselves in limbo for so long. It’s those who are in new relationships and perhaps plan to marry again that are most happy to go down the divorce route.

“People can also be a little taken aback by the cost of getting divorce or separation,” she says. “But many solicitors will arrange a finance plan so up-front payments of the total amount don’t have to be made.”

In typical cases, it can cost between €12,000 and €20,000 to get a judicial separation while an uncontested divorce is only marginally more expensive. “You know that saying about saving for a rainy day?” Anne O’Neill says. “Well, this is a rainy day.”

The solicitor, who used to work for Alan Shatter’s law firm, says there was a noticeable downturn in the numbers seeking divorce during the recession, “but now that we’re coming out of it” the numbers have gone up significantly.

“I would like to see changes in the legislation,” O’Neill says, “especially a reduction in the amount of time that people have to be living apart before they can be granted a divorce and to have the notion of a ‘clean break’ written into law, because that’s certainly not the case as it stands.”

Since divorce came into law, it has been possible for a spouse to return to court years after a divorce was granted in order to seek additional financial support.

Professor Tony Fahey of UCD’s School of Applied Social Science has observed family dynamics in Ireland for decades and says the number of divorces granted peaked here in 2007 and has been in decline in the eight years since then.

“It’s fallen by a quarter and it was never particularly high to begin with,” he says. “The decline isn’t that unusual on an international level and it’s been common for it to fall as people decide to get married at an older age.”

Forty years ago, it was common for women to marry in their early 20s with the men only a couple of years older, but today the typical bride is 33 and her groom-to-be is 35.

“The key difference now,” Prof Fahey says, “is that people are co-habiting in far greater numbers – even though Ireland lags behind the rest of Europe when it comes to cohabiting. It’s like a trial marriage – they’re far better placed to see if they’re ready for actual marriage than their parents were.”

While much of the Western world experienced a wedding boom in the years after the Second World War, it didn’t happen in Ireland until the late 1960s or early 1970s, according to Prof Fahey.

“There was a prosperity and optimism in Ireland that hadn’t been seen before,” he says, “and the peak year of marriage was 1974 [when there were 63 weddings, on average, every day]. But cohabitation was largely unheard of and often the only way people could have a sexual relationship was to marry.”

Prof Fahey says that it was hardly the ideal basis to centre a successful marriage on, especially as couples were then so young when tying the knot, and he notes the peak period of marital breakdown was from the early 1980s until the early 2000s. “Many of those were people who got married very young in the 1970s,” he says.

The family make-up has changed enormously since that peak marriage year of 1974, and not just with the passing of equality legislation, which led to the first gay marriages this week.

Today, 36pc of children are – to use that antiquated term – born out of wedlock. The figure in 1980 was just 5pc.

“The big changes in Irish society when it came to family and marriage occurred in the 1980s and 1990s,” Prof Fahey says. “By the end of the 1990s, some 30pc of children were born outside of marriage – a six-fold increase in just 20 years. The rate of change hasn’t been nearly as marked since then.”

And, in defiance of that ‘Hello divorce… bye bye daddy’ line, he says when it comes to lone-parent families, divorced fathers are more likely to be involved in their children’s lives than those who never marry.

Yet, as a major study of Ireland’s circuit courts from last year shows, men tend to fare very badly when it comes to access to their children post-separation and post-divorce. The research, conducted over four years by Róisín O’Shea – who is now a certified mediator based in Waterford – shows that joint custody does not mean joint parenting, as in nine out of every 10 cases the children end up living with the mother.

And, in practice, “standard access” for fathers means a few hours every second weekend and once or twice during the week for a few hours.

“Quite a lot of men were put below subsistence levels and are getting a raw deal in terms of access to their children,” according to O’Shea, who experienced the Irish divorce system when her own marriage ended. “It is an extremely traditional family that is presented in the courts. This traditional approach is taken by judges and the men themselves.”

She found that men leave the family home during a marital breakdown, presuming this is the best decision: “Once they (men) are out of the family home, judges see that as the status quo. Most men are subsequently shocked when they realise the significance of that decision to leave the family home and its negative impact in respect of their financial outcomes”.

The research found that both mothers and fathers restrict access to, or exclude, the non-resident parent on the basis that frequent contact with that parent distresses them and the children in high-conflict cases.

And, as was the case when divorce came into law in 1996, women continue to lead the way in judicial separation and divorce. “More than seven out of 10 judicial separation and divorce applications where there are dependant children were initiated by mothers,” says O’Shea.

It’s a finding that would surely have been shocking to the late Fine Gael TD and arch-conservative Alice Glenn. Her anti-divorce literature in advance of the 1986 referendum was headlined: “A woman voting for divorce is like a turkey voting for Christmas.”

Irish divorce rate in Ireland

0.6 – the divorce rate per 1,000 people in Ireland – the lowest in the EU and well under the European national average

13% – the percentage of divorced people here, versus those married. The figure in the UK is 47pc

100,000 – the approximate number of people who have been granted divorce in this country since it became law in 1996

4 – the number of years married couples have to be living apart before they are eligible for divorce

2007 – the year when the number of divorces granted here peaked

45% – the percentage of divorced people in a study by the website Separation.ie who say their status makes them feel stigmatised in Irish society

35 – the average age of men getting married today (it was 26 in the mid-1970s)

33 – the average age of women getting married today (it was 24 in the mid-1970s)


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